Late-arriving Brigade reach midseason in middle of AFL pack

The Baltimore Brigade reached the midway point of their inaugural Arena Football League season on June 3, absorbing their fifth loss in seven games. That the team could peer below and see two teams still trailing in the standings might have been the league's biggest surprise.

Through two-plus months of play, all of the Brigade's successes and all of their setbacks have been couched with a fair caveat: This team wasn't supposed to see the field this soon.

Omarr Smith, hired in late December to coach a team formed in mid-November, lamented having to put together a roster "in a matter of 21/2 months," when the league's four other squads already had one. Jeff Bowler, vice president of business operations for Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns the team, said he and other team officials recommend that potential franchise owners consider a 16-month time frame for launching a team, "at minimum."

So, yes, the Brigade are 2-5, far behind the first-place Philadelphia Soul (7-0) and Tampa Bay Storm (6-1). Still, that's better than the Cleveland Gladiators (2-6) and Washington Valor (1-6), the other MSE-owned expansion team. Smith said he'd use this bye week to study how the Brigade might catch up, not fall back.

"I'm disappointed in where we are as a football team right now," he said. "We're 2-5. That's not where I think we should be. We haven't met my expectations, even though we're a young team. I have higher expectations for myself, our players, our program. My hope is that we have a much better second half of the season than we did the first half."

Injuries and youth have conspired against the Brigade. The team lost wide receivers Reggie Gray (collarbone), a four-time All-Arena selection, and former Raven Laquan Williams (leg) in late April and early May, respectively. Cornerback Varmah Sonie (leg), a first-team All-Arena honoree in 2014 and 2016, also missed time but is healthy now.

Struggles at other positions have meant the league's youngest team can no longer hide its youth. While players like quarterback Shane Carden, offensive lineman Ben Clarke and kicker Patrick Clarke have emerged unexpectedly, Smith said, others have struggled with execution and attention to detail.

"You do have to get over some hiccups at first, just like any start to any program," said wide receiver Paul Browning, who leads the team in catches. "I know the injury bug bit us kind of early as well, but like I said, we are a very competitive team. You see some really good things in the chemistry. That's something that's very important."

Because of the Brigade's rush to the starting line, they have played just twice so far at Royal Farms Arena. There, the team does have some catching up to do. With an announced 11,105 over two games, the Brigade are last in the league in average attendance (5,552.5). Washington is averaging more than twice that, and the three other AFL teams have drawn over 9,500 per game this season.

But on paper, Bowler said the team has so far met the "realistic expectations" officials set before the season. He said the Brigade have had positive growth on ticket sales, and that it will take a full year to establish a "solid foundation" of season-ticket holders.

In the stands, the organic formation of fan groups like the "Brick Squad," a collection of raucous millennial-age supporters who have attended not only the team's home games but also a matchup in Philadelphia, is encouraging. A large crowd is important, Bowler said, but so is an engaged one.

"We know Baltimore: They're very passionate sports fans and they want a winner," he said. "So I think we believe that winning will certainly play a role in our growth to some extent, but I think our mentality will and has always been that we want to put together a high-quality entertainment product that, regardless of what the outcome of the game is, people will have a great time when they come. And they'll want to come back, even if the team loses."

jshaffer@baltsun.com

twitter.com/jonas_shaffer

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