4 Storylines To Watch in the ISL’s Semifinal #2: Top Six In MVP Ranks Collide


The International Swimming League’s 2020 postseason starts tomorrow, with the top two teams in each semifinal making the league finale. Here are four storylines we’re watching in semifinal #2:

Shields vs Dressel Butterfly Showdowns

Cali and LA have met twice this year – in the first and last matches of the regular season.

In match #1, LA flyer Tom Shields beat Cali star Caeleb Dressel head-to-head in the 100 fly (49.58 to 49.62), but Dressel got revenge in the 50 fly, 22.46 to 22.74. Shields did outsplit Dressel on the medley relay 49.05 to 49.49, though.

In match #2, Dressel won the 100 fly 49.02 to 49.17, but Shields split 48.92 on the medley relay to Dressel’s 49.55. Meanwhile Dressel beat Shields in the 50 fly 22.06 to 22.68, though neither won the event.

In league ranks this year, Shields is #1 in the 100 fly (48.94) with Dressel #2 (49.02). In the 50 fly, Dressel is third (22.06) and Shields 5th (22.32). The two have been excruciatingly close in every 100 fly matchup this year, and we should get to see several more thrilling battles between two of the league’s best underwater kickers.

LA vs Iron’s first 2020 matchup

One quirk of the ISL scheduling was that only a few teams didn’t face each other head-to-head in the regular season. One of those matchups we never got to see was the LA Current vs Iron.

It’s fitting, then, that the two former Group B rivals from 2019 will have their first 2020 matchup in a semifinal where the stakes couldn’t be higher. With Cali considered the top team in the semifinal, only one of LA and Iron is likely to make the league final.

We’d expect LA to be the favorites. They’ve got a more well-rounded roster, better-ranked relays, and a more reliable pipeline to skins points through their men’s’ medley relay. But the league hasn’t been entirely predictable this year, and we could see this matchup turn out closer than we anticipated, especially if one or both teams chooses to take a big rest into the semifinal.

MVP Frontrunners Collide

Semifinal #2 will feature all four frontrunners for league MVP in our ‘MVP Watch’ story from earlier this week. In fact, this match features the entire top 6 in leaguewide MVP scoring:

Top MVP scorers, 2020 season

  1. Caeleb Dressel (CAC) – 277
  2. Beryl Gastaldello (LAC) – 246.5
  3. Ryan Murphy (LAC) – 233
  4. Lilly King (CAC) – 228
  5. Olivia Smoliga (CAC) – 194.5
  6. Emre Sakci (IRO) – 193.5

All six should be jockeying for position on that MVP scoring list, meaning that even if the team points are well in hand by day 2, every event will still have a lot on the line. The choice of stroke for the skin races will go a long way in clarifying that order.

If Dressel gets to swim a free or fly skin race, he becomes almost uncatchable in MVP points for this week. But as we explore at the bottom of this story, it’s more likely that we see Murphy and King surge up the ranks with some skin and jackpot points late.

The League’s Two Most Dominant Breaststrokers

Throughout 2020, the breaststrokes have featured one clear dominator on both the women’s and men’s sides.

Lilly King started out her ISL career on a run of 34 consecutive victories, 27 of them coming in the breaststrokes. Though she was finally beaten in both the 200 breast and 50 breast last week, she remains the ISL leader and record-holder in all three breaststrokes for the Cali Condors.

Meanwhile Iron’s Emre Sakci is the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. The Turkish breaststroker joined Iron this year, only to start his ISL career 9-1 in the 50 breaststroke. That includes 50 breast wins in all four of Iron’s meets, plus two skins wins. His only “loss” has been in round 1 of a skin race, where Sakci came in second while strategically conserving his energy enough to win the next two rounds by a combined 0.9 seconds.

He’s also won two 100 breaststrokes in four meets. Sakci is the league leader and ISL record-holder in both the 50 and 100 breast. Fans of breaststroke will have no shortage of events to look forward to in semifinal #2.


Medley Relay/Skins Breakdown

As a bonus, we’ll run through each team’s season-best in the medley relays, plus what the favorites are likely to pick for the skin races:

Women’s Medley Relay

  1. Cali Condors – 3:47.13
  2. Toronto Titans – 3:48.50
  3. LA Current – 3:49.87
  4. Iron – 3:51.08

The Cali Condors haven’t lost a women’s medley relay in ISL history, and it would be a pretty big upset if Toronto were to beat them this week. Cali has picked breaststroke three times for the skin race, and backstroke once. In this field, they’re quite likely to go for breaststroke again. That’s LA’s weakest stroke by far. And it avoids Toronto’s backstroke star Kylie Masse and LA’s fly/free/back standout Beryl Gastaldello

It also would give Lilly King a leg up on Gastaldello in the ongoing battle for league MVP. One subplot: if Iron and LA are at all close in the race for second, the women’s breaststroke skins could be a huge swing for Iron, as they have the league’s #5-ranked 50 breaststroker in Ida Hulkko and LA is liable to get blocked out of almost any points in the breaststroke skins.

Men’s Medley Relay

  1. LA Current – 3:20.95
  2. Cali Condors – 3:24.49
  3. Toronto Titans – 3:24.78
  4. Iron – 3:24.81

The LA Current haven’t lost a men’s medley relay all year, and they lead this group by an almost-insurmountable margin. In fact, it’s not out of the question that LA could go 1-2 in the relay without even splitting its relays. (A Murphy/Silva/Shields/Gkolomeev team could be at least 3:21, and Carter/Licon/Rooney/Ferreira could be 3:24-mid or better).

If LA wins, they’re very likely to pick backstroke. That (1) avoids Dressel, (2) maximizes LA’s best male swimmer Ryan Murphy, (3) hits the relative weak point for Iron, the team with the best shot of knocking LA out of the final, and (4) comes in a match where essentially all the other top backstroking teams – Energy Standard, London, Toronto, Tokyo – are grouped into the other semifinal.

In This Story

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10 months ago

What about SF #1?

10 months ago

Also it is possible to see 5 WR in a semi..

10 months ago

I wonder if the league will take a look at changing the “400medley winner picks skins” rule next year. It adds a lot of weight to the relay, and it is pretty fun, but they can’t be happy that Cali’s lack of a serviceable breaststroker means that we will probably not see a single free or fly skins from dressel this season…

Reply to  eagleswim
10 months ago

They could set up a “home/visitor” type scenario between teams that provides the home team the choice on the skins event. The teams would all have an equal amount times where they would be designated as the “home” team in the regular season. In the post season the higher seeded team would be the home team. It also might bring a bit more balance in the regular season within the scoring as well.

Reply to  eagleswim
10 months ago

Instead they sould have a “point” limit based on actual results of last season.

Each swimmer would be scored and they team would have a maximum amount of points for the whole team and amount they could use in each round.. (Maybe expanding for 18 swimmers each gender each team)

Reply to  eagleswim
10 months ago

Looks like I am the only who loves the winner picks skins scenario that has been this season. I love that it did something different this season compared to last. I’m open to something new and innovative for next season tho. Maybe a lottery system. Or fastest split overall.

I’ve been so happy with ISL this season. It really saved us swim fans especially with COVID confining us to our homes.

Reply to  AvidSwimFan
10 months ago

I also love the winner picks skins scenario this season. Definitely better than always being freestyle. I really just meant from a business perspective, I wonder if they are regretting that Dressel doesn’t have a chance to shine in them this year

Reply to  AvidSwimFan
10 months ago

I love the idea…I just don’t love the impact it has on team scoring.

The team scoring is hyper-imbalanced in this league as is. Anything you add to further imbalance that I don’t like.

I might like it more if the teams weren’t so lopsided.

10 months ago

How much Margalis leading affects the Condors?

About Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson

Jared Anderson swam for nearly twenty years. Then, Jared Anderson stopped swimming and started writing about swimming. He's not sick of swimming yet. Swimming might be sick of him, though. Jared was a YMCA and high school swimmer in northern Minnesota, and spent his college years swimming breaststroke and occasionally pretending …

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