Photo by Scobel Wiggins – UltiPhotos.com
Major League Ultimate’s first Breakout Player of the Year award, which goes to the player who made the biggest improvement from the previous season, was awarded to Seattle’s own Khalif El-Salaam for a standout season with the Rainmakers.
Last year, when El-Salaam played for the Portland Stags, he made some highlight reel plays, but managed to tally up only five points over the course of the season. Compare this figure against the 20 goals and 12 assists that he strung together over the course of 2014 with the Seattle Rainmakers.
Despite the massive leap in numbers, El-Salaam insists that his approach to the game remained the same.
“This year, I didn’t do much different,” he said. “If anything it’s that I played a different role on the Rainmakers than I did with the Stags. For the Stags I played defense, but I missed a bunch of games because of college ultimate and just didn’t get much time on the field in general. With the Rainmakers I played offense, and as everyone saw, we played a lot of points just in general, so I got tons of touches on the field.”
El-Salaam also credits his teammates for giving him the opportunity to make those big plays and put big numbers on the board.
“With Donnie Clark, Daniel Trytiak and me all on the same line, one of us was going to score,” he said, “And The Handshake with Henry Phan was going to happen no matter what. I did want to win the celebration factor this year. Fans come to games to see a show, and that’s what I wanted to give them.”
Seattle co-head coaches Mario O’Brien and Steve Gussin overflow with praise for El-Salaam, from his field presence to his attitude to how much of a pleasure he was to work with.
“Leaf is a dangerous offensive threat downfield,” said O’Brien. “He’s the right balance between fast, quick, explosive and smart. This means he’s constantly challenging his defender and helping the offense chew up big chunks of yards in the lane.”
“One other thing that comes to my mind that makes Khalif stand out to me is his leadership,” said Gussin. “He’s worked extremely hard at becoming a powerful leader both on and off the field. It’s a hard position to be in as such a young player, but we asked him to take on a really big role this year, and he did so without reservation. Especially down the stretch, he was really the focal point of our offense, and he bore that weight well.”
“He makes plays,” said O’Brien. “It’s really tough to explain, that special ability to read moments in the game and react extremely quickly and explosively. He had two plays this year in the fourth quarter that were huge momentum swingers. One was a layout underneath block, the rarest and most coveted block in ultimate, on Morgan Hibbert, followed by a fast break deep cut for a goal. Vancouver never recovered. The other was a fourth quarter goal he caught at Portland that led to our first road win, and Portland’s first of only two losses on the season. His defender cleanly swatted a poorly thrown huck, the disc floated, and Leaf followed the play and leaped over the defender for the catch.”
“I’m excited to see where he goes in the coming years,” said Gussin. “He’s not the kind of player to have a good season and rest on his laurels – in talking with him this summer, I know he’s still working hard to get even better for next year.”
“One more thing, he’s been well coached over the years, and he’s a product of the fantastic Seattle youth ultimate scene,” said O’Brien. “All of his previous coaches deserve a tiny piece of this award. The fact that Leaf is the Breakout Player of the Year is yet another affirmation that things are continuing to build here in Seattle.”
Beyond his own performance and the performance of the Rainmakers this season, El-Salaam took a moment to reflect on the state of the MLU overall and to extend his thanks to the fans.
“The league as a whole got better this year,” he said. “I love how they do whatever they can to make it the best for the fans. I think that is who is important and if the MLU keeps focusing on what they need to make every game memorable and have them coming back, I think that is their best bet.”
Although fans will have to wait until 2015 to see El-Salaam back in action in the MLU, there’s still a championship to be played. El-Salaam weighed in on the big game a bit obliquely, but you can probably tell who he’s rooting for.
“The Western Conference contains national champions, world junior champions, world champions, beach world champions, international coaches and big athletic globs who are just impossible to shut down. In order to be good in this league, you must come physically and mentally ready to play every single game; you can’t have any slip-ups or any lulls, or you’ll get broken three times in a row and have to call a timeout. I love being in this conference because if you win this conference, you are the best hands down.”