In a way, it feels like the Houston Outlaws have already won Stage 3. After a disastrous 0-7 Stage 2, just coming back in fighting form felt like a victory. Doing it with several decisive wins was just the icing on the cake. And a staggering upset against the Stage 2 champions was the cherry on top.
But now they find themselves in the Stage playoffs for the first time since Stage 1 of last season. How much of this momentum can they maintain in a bracket full of the best?
Stage 3 in Review
Coming off the team’s first winless stage, with their parent company having very public financial troubles, few outside observers expected much from Houston in Stage 3. That made their opening match against the New York Excelsior even more dramatic. While the game ended in a loss, the Outlaws came out in strength that surprised even their most optimistic fans. Taking the longtime kings of the league to five maps was an accomplishment on its own.
Then came the stunner. In another five-map brawl, the Outlaws came back from a 2-1 deficit to take down the San Francisco Shock. From there, the momentum seemed unstoppable. Houston went on to defeat Boston and Paris easily. There was a momentary setback in an unexpected loss to the Florida Mayhem, but it wasn’t enough to permanently slow the team down. They wrapped up the stage in Week 4 with decisive wins against Washington and Toronto, sealing their playoff spot.
So now Cinderella is headed to the Royal Ball, in her black and green finest. With this much wind in their sails, what could possibly slow the Outlaws’ comeback now?
Quarterfinals: Vancouver Titans (20-1)
Well, that, for one. Thanks to their first-ever regular-season loss, the Titans slipped to second place in the playoff standings, making them Houston’s quarterfinal opponents.
But believe it or not, this actually isn’t the death sentence it might seem like on the surface. Yes, it’s going to be a challenging match. The odds still heavily in favor of Vancouver, but it’s unlikely to be the blowout it might have been earlier this season. The Titans do have some weak points that the Outlaws are uniquely positioned to exploit. They’ve struggled some against strong Sombra play, and Houston has one of the best Sombras in the league. However, the Titans are an incredibly adaptable squad who’ve earned their reputation as the best. The Outlaws may get some early blows in, but victory over Vancouver is still a long shot.
Prediction: Titans 3-1 Outlaws
Semifinals and Finals
But what if the unlikely happens, and the Outlaws fell the Titans? Unless the 8th place Shanghai Dragons pull an upset as well, Houston will face another high-seeded team in the semifinals. That’s likely to be either San Francisco, who they’ve embarrassed once this stage, or New York, who have a reputation for choking in playoffs. They’re both still long-shot wins, but not nearly as long as the Vancouver upset required to get there. If Houston defeats one of them in the semis, they’ll likely play the other in the finals, barring any other major upsets in the playoff bracket.
Of course, other upsets could always happen. The other teams in the playoffs — the LA Valiant, Hangzhou Spark, Seoul Dynasty and Shanghai Dragons — are all in the middle of upswings as well. Of those teams, Hangzhou and Shanghai seem the most threatening (especially with Shanghai boasting the other best Sombra in the League, Jinhyeok “Dding” Yang).
But with their reputation for carrying momentum through games, beating the Titans would have the Outlaws in rare form. If they’re already playing well enough to upset Vancouver, adding on the rush of actually doing it could make them nigh unstoppable. There’s certainly no easy path to the stage championship, but if they can clear this first hurdle, it suddenly becomes far less impossible.
Player to Watch: Dante “Danteh” Cruz
The Outlaws’ coordination and composition choices have done more for their success this stage than any individual player. But both of those have revolved around Danteh and his powerhouse Sombra. Thankfully, his play has been both good enough and consistent enough for them to build upon successfully. He can’t carry the team alone, at least not in this tough playoff bracket. But his continued high performance is the foundation of Houston’s comeback — and of most of their future hopes. If he maintains his dominant Sombra play, and the rest of the team can keep capitalizing on it, there’s still a chance Houston can turn their Stage 3 comeback story into the stuff of legends.
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