Momentum is a finicky, unquantifiable thing. If a team with a worse season record bulldozes their way through the postseason, they’ll still likely be seen as an underdog going into the finals, especially against a team that dominated the regular season.
Yet momentum shouldn't be underestimated. It's crushed complacent would-be contenders. It’s won championships.
In their North American League Championship Series 2016 Spring Playoffs Semifinal matchup against Counter Logic Gaming this week, Team Liquid are technically an underdog, based on their regular season standing. Just don’t tell them that. They’ll deny it vehemently.
“I think we’ll be fine. I would hope for another 3-0, but I’ll say a 3-1,” TL jungler Joshua “Dardoch” Hartnett said on broadcast after their quarterfinals win. "We’re hiding everything," He later added in an ESPN interview. "We played our least favorite champions this week. I played Gragas. I played full damage Lee as a joke."
TL have a multitude of reasons to back up their confidence going into the upcoming series against CLG. They have an 8-1 record across their last nine games, including Sunday’s 3-0 blowout against NRG eSports. The last time these two teams faced each other was in Week 8, following CLG’s disappointing appearance at the IEM World Championship at Katowice. TL won that match on the back of another stunning Dardoch Lee Sin performance — he ended the game with a perfect score of 3/0/8 and 100 percent kill participation.
After sweeping NRG, TL also have momentum.
On Saturday, CLG will be the first of NA’s playoff bye teams to step onstage and face their opponents. With three weeks of preparation time, and a stronger regular season showing, this should give them an edge over TL. Yet Liquid's newfound synergy and that pesky intangible they have — momentum — look to be the factors that will decide this matchup.
Practice on the Patch
I think we definitely have a lot of things we can run, it’s just about figuring out when it’s the best. Everyone has champions they’re really good at, and everyone has champions you can pick that are the best in the situation. And it’s trying to find that middle point where you’re picking something you’re really comfortable at and something that’s also really strong. We’re slowly finding our groove there.
— CLG top laner Darshan “Darshan” Upadhyaha on broadcast after their final match of the regular season
With the NA LCS Spring Playoffs comes the 6.6 patch and all the changes it brings to the competitive landscape. While CLG have had three weeks of preparation, TL already have one series under their belt on 6.6, and have both seen and played some of the new patch’s power picks on the live stage.
Likely to be hotly contested is top lane tank Ekko, who has seen play across regions major and minor, especially in Korea and China. TL's Samson “Lourlo” Jackson took Ekko top in Game 1 against NRG, ending with a perfect score of 4/0/6. Darshan played an AP top lane Ekko at IEM Katowice, and tank Ekko has everything Darshan wants and needs to be a dangerous split-pushing threat. Ekko's new standard tank build — Iceborn Gauntlet, Sunfire Cape, Spirit Visage and the Grasp of the Undying keystone mastery — means he's able to do consistent damage and stay alive through teamfights and 1v1s. With a mobile kit full of escape options should focus turn to him in a side lane, and crowd control for teamfights, both TL and CLG will be looking towards the Boy Who Shattered Time for their top laners.
CLG's players showcased fairly flexible champion pools this season, and a willingness to try new picks, even if they don’t always work out. Week 8’s top lane Yasuo pick for Darshan in their loss to TL stands out as the most obvious example. Once maligned, jungler Jake “Xmithie” Puchero’s champion pool expanded throughout NA LCS 2016 Spring, which will be an important factor in the series as he goes up against TL Dardoch.
Also of note for these two teams are the roles that TL's Matthew “Matt” Elento and CLG's Zaqueri “aphromoo” Black play, and the way these supports synergize with junglers Dardoch and Xmithie.
Xmithie has evolved into a more oppressive jungler in part because aphromoo backed him up every step of the way. In order to set Xmithie ahead of his jungle adversaries — especially when Xmithie is on the farm-heavy Udyr — aphromoo continuously harasses CLG’s opponents on their early jungle routes, a tactic that was on display in CLG’s Week 7 win over Immortals. With the extra space Xmithie has to farm, he can provide much more damage and utility come mid-game. Of all junglers in NA LCS Spring, Xmithie averaged the highest CS per minute, at 4.5, and had the third-highest CS difference at 10 minutes, at 1.9. This success wouldn't have been possible without aphromoo.
CLG also gives Xmithie more lane resources than the average jungler, especially as their primary method of attack evolved into a 1-3-1 split-push with both Xmithie and top laner Darshan in a side lane. By contrast, Dardoch is all about early lane pressure. His second-highest gold difference at 10 minutes (289) goes hand in hand with his 78 percent kill participation — the best of any NA LCS starting jungler this split. Wherever there are kills for TL, Dardoch is almost certainly involved.
Matt is right there beside him, with a 77.6 percent kill participation, the second-best of any NA starting support. Originally playing the role of primary initiator on Alistar and Bard, Matt is now called upon to control the team's fights and skirmishes with disengage from Janna, Karma and Braum. He has a 100 percent winrate on Janna, including four games in the regular season and two more against NRG in the NA LCS Quarterfinals.
When it comes to warding, Matt is invaluable to TL, having placed the second-most wards per minute of any starting support in NA, at 1.34. aphromoo’s second-worst ward rate of 0.99 per minute is a vulnerability TL can exploit by setting up a superior vision net and making picks.
Matt and Liquid AD carry Chae “Piglet” Gwang-jin are extremely dangerous in a 2v2 matchup, and will be more than a match for aphromoo and CLG ADC Trevor “Stixxay” Hayes. Both bot lanes sport a seasoned veteran and an LCS rookie, but with their positions reversed. aphromoo has done an excellent job supporting the rookie Stixxay who, to his credit, has done exactly what his team has needed him to do as a secondary cleanup carry for the team.
Team vs. Team
|2016 NA LCS Spring||Counter Logic Gaming||Team Liquid|
|Average Gold Difference at 15 Minutes||806||357|
|Early Game Rating||57.9||53.4|
|First Blood Rate||61%||50%|
|First Dragon Rate||78%||56%|
|First Turret Rate||56%||50%|
|First Baron Rate||50%||50%|
|Mid/Late Game Rating||14.4||2.1|
|Dragon Control Rate||70%||61%|
|Jungle Control Rate||52.3%||52.8%|
|Wards per Minute||3.32||3.39|
Not surprisingly, CLG's regular season statistics are stronger overall, but the numbers don't reveal the differences in the two teams' playstyles. Where CLG likes to spread their opponents around the map and trade objectives, TL has grown into a team that sprints ahead of adversaries as quickly as possible, especially with Dardoch's massive carry potential.
Despite the disparity in some of the stats — for example CLG's 61 percent First Blood rate, which is tied for second-highest in the region — the two teams are often side-by-side in the NA standings, and more often than not at towards top of the charts. Although TL's mid-to-late game rating is dramatically lower than CLG's, both are ranked in the top four in NA.
Don't let the stats fool you. TL's lower rankings are largely a result of their struggles in Weeks 1 and 2, as well as their dramatic loss to Echo Fox in Week 6. Their regular season numbers don't necessarily illustrate where they are now.
The clash between these two teams will come down to intangibles and in-game execution: TL has the momentum on their side, and CLG has had three weeks to prepare for TL and the patch. These will be the most important factors going into the semifinal this week.
Emily Rand is a staff writer for theScore esports. You can follow her on Twitter.