In the three year plus history of the North American League Championship Series, four teams have played from opening day of the competition back in the spring of 2013 to the current split in 2016. Those teams are Team SoloMid, Counter Logic Gaming, Team Liquid (formerly Curse) and Dignitas. Cloud9, which is usually categorized alongside this quartet as a core team, didn't come into the league until the second season, the summer of 2013.
Team SoloMid has qualified for every NA LCS Grand Finals in history, winning three championships while dropping the other half.
Counter Logic Gaming went through five seasons of turmoil and postseason nightmares before finally winning its first title last summer over archrivals Team SoloMid inside the historic Madison Square Garden.
Dignitas experienced a consistent downward slide in results, with the established franchise having its worst split this spring by finishing dead last in the league. It became the first of the "Core Four" to fall out of the NA LCS, getting swept by the minor league Team Dragon Knights.
Liquid, like CLG of the past, are stuck in purgatory. It won a regular-season title and improved almost every season, but it still is haunted by the stigma of always finishing fourth in either the ladder or in the playoffs. While TSM and CLG have won the grandest prize in the LCS and Dignitas has now felt the ultimate horror of being relegated, Liquid sit in the middle: One step away from reaching its peers at the top, yet also one semifinal loss away from being chastised again for not being good enough to make the finals.
A confident bunch, Team Liquid believes this is the season: The one where it will break through the mediocrity and truly, finally, become the undisputed best team in North America.
As defending champions, Counter Logic Gaming says bring it on. CLG wasn't expected to win the title last season and won it all. CLG wasn't expected to do well this split and finished second. And come this final four showdown, the champion isn't ready to step aside from the throne it acquired last summer in New York City.
Top Lane: Darshan "Darshan" Upadhyaya (CLG) vs. Samson "Lourlo" Jackson (TL)
This is a one-on-one between two players with differing and distinct styles. On the side of CLG, Darshan could be argued as the ace of the entire team. His split-pushing antics is one of the key reasons why a weaker on paper CLG squad has actually done marvelously this split. He gets farm and gold, pushes the side lanes and has the map knowledge along with the trust in his teammates to stretch the map to his liking. This means he's also the lowest out of every player in the match in terms of kill participation, only contributing with the rest of his team 62.5 percent of the time.
Lourlo is a utility player in the top lane position through and through. He's a pillar of support behind their main carries in the jungle, AD carry, and sometimes mid lane roles. TL's top laner isn't the type of player that will end up in highlight reels like his peers, but the current tank meta has fit him like a glove. He is solid in engaging and playing around his team when it comes to drawn-out team fights.
Similar to last week, when he was facing NRG's Jung "Impact" Eon-yeong, I give the edge to Lourlo's opposition. If Liquid play well, then regardless of how the top lane match-up goes, I expect Lourlo to be solid in everything he does -- a complete rock in between his four teammates. But if things go awry in the others lanes, Darshan will have the opportunity to do what he does best: snowball into the late-game as an all-around terror on Summoner's Rift.
Advantage: Counter Logic Gaming
Jungle: Jake "Xmithie" Puchero (CLG) vs. Joshua "Dardoch" Hartnett (TL)
Basically take what I said in the top lane and reverse the roles. This time around, it's the ace in the jungle for TL and utility in the jungle for CLG. Dardoch won the Rookie of the Split award in runaway fashion, and he backed up his accolade last week by blowing up NRG Esports in one of the most lopsided playoff matches in NA LCS history. He played full damage Lee Sin in amazing carry performance and then said it was a merely a "joke" in the postgame interview.
Brash inside and outside of the game, Dardoch has become one of the top players in the league during his inaugural split and hasn't slowed down since breaking into the starting lineup. He has become the main shot-caller on the team, and Liquid has gotten better as the weeks have gone by as the other two rookies on the team, Matt and Lourlo, have eased into the lineup.
Xmithie is everything Dardoch is not -- a soft-spoken veteran and herbivore jungler instead of Dardoch's always hungry for kills carnivore ways. He has been around since the early days of the NA LCS on the likes of Vulcun, and although he hasn't turned heads like his semifinal opponent this season, Xmithie has been a dependable hand in CLG's greater than the sum of their parts mindset.
The advantage in this match, like the last one, goes to the player who has proved to have the ability to individually change the tempo of a series. Dardoch has the talent and green light from his team to be the carrying force, if needed. After telling ESPN last weekend Team Liquid had "shown absolutely nothing" in their blowout of NRG, what could the Rookie of the Split have up this sleeve against the reigning kings of NA?
Advantage: Team Liquid
Mid Lane: Choi "Huhi" Jae-hyun (CLG) vs. Kim "FeniX" Jae-hun (TL)
FeniX has, somehow, gone under the radar all season and sneakily been one of the best mid laners in the league. During the times when the rest of his team is zipping around the map and getting into brawls with the enemy team, FeniX farms empty lanes, picks up his farms and sails into the late-game, where his superb positioning and snap decision-making can help his squad pick up a win.
Last week was supposed to be a huge test for FeniX against NRG's Lee "GBM" Chang-seok, one of the best aces in the entire league. If TL was going to lose the series, it would have probably been due to GBM beating FeniX in lane and carrying his disorganized team to a close 3-2 victory. That didn't come close to occurring, as Liquid's mid laner quietly controlled the matchup by farming masterfully in the early-game and never letting GBM get a chance to breathe on the map. It was a complete and total victory.
This go around, Liquid will be seen as the team with the advantage in the mid lane. Huhi, well, had a steady, comfortable season. Not great. Not terrible. CLG's won through their map control, stellar coordination and teamwork, and Huhi, outside of being caught at random times, has been a key component to their success.
It's time to stop sleeping on FeniX, though. Azir back in the meta and FeniX's willingness to play assassins like Zed makes him a member of Liquid you can no longer forget about in the pick/ban phase. Another dominating performance in the mid lane by FeniX, quietly or not, could be the thing which sends Liquid to its first ever NA LCS grand finals.
Advantage: Team Liquid
Bottom Lane: Trevor "Stixxay" Hayes & Zaqueri "Aphromoo" Black (CLG) vs. Chae "Piglet" Gwang-jin & Matt "Matt" Elento (TL)
This series is truly one of reverse matchups. For CLG, it's a veteran support and a rookie AD carry. For TL, it's a rookie support and a veteran AD carry. CLG's duo like to play for the late-game and don't center around their AD. TL love to assert control from the start of the laning phase, and a lot of times put all their eggs into the Piglet basket.
When it comes to mechanical skill, it's hard to argue any bottom lane in NA (and maybe in EU) can stand up against the firepower of Piglet and Matt. The two have come together quickly, and Matt has learned to sync up with his star AD carry. Unlike the CLG lane in which Aphromoo takes care of his rookie and makes sure he doesn't get overrun, Piglet is the one who is leading Matt and setting the pace in the lane.
Piglet has continually said he's the best AD carry in the world over the past few weeks, and it's hard to disagree with him when he and Matt have repeatedly destroyed their opponents in-lane. Just when you think they might be at a disadvantage or made a brainless play, they turn things around in an instant and Piglet is up 20 or 30 CS on his opponent before the 15-minute mark. We need to see Piglet back against international competition, most notably South Korea, to truly gauge the bottom's lane strength, and the duo think the Mid-Season Invitational will be the setting for their global debut.
Aphromoo is one of the best in-game leaders in the western scene and will be crucial to the failure or success of CLG this series. However, if we're talking strictly about the two bottom lanes against each other, the edge has to go over to Team Liquid due to their outright supremacy the past month.
Advantage: Team Liquid
Regardless of the outcome, this should almost certainly be a closer series than TL versus NRG, outside of one of the teams tilting following the first set. CLG is a team built around cohesion. Liquid is a team with a plethora of individual stars whom can take over a best-of-five.
I would pinpoint Aphromoo and Piglet as the most important players in this series.
If the regular season was extended a few more weekends, I think Piglet would have most likely taken the MVP award with how well he's progressed with Matt in the bottom lane. TL have won games simply from the two of them bullying their opposition and taking an early objective control lead with the dragon and a tower. If Piglet or Matt smell even a single drop of blood in the water, they're going to push you around and pressure you until you break.
For Counter Logic, its big advantage comes in the shotcalling game. Dardoch, in spite of how ridiculous his rookie season has been, is still a rookie. Liquid would probably been a top two team this split behind Immortals if it didn't fall apart in a few games where it had good leads in the mid-game. CLG has proved under Aphromoo's guidance it can turn what appears to be a certain loss to a beautiful comeback win.
Team Liquid recently look like the best squad in North America. The team's pieces have fallen into the place, and all five members of the starting lineup have found their specific niches on the map. They're strong late-game, sturdy in the mid-game and have the teamfighting to close games when it gates late. The small mistakes and throws that plagued it in the first 14 or so games in the regular season have subsided.
CLG has no issues being the underdogs and actually thrive from being counted out. Team Liquid doesn't care what people believe: It knows it's the best in the NA LCS.
The defending champions and the squad that wholeheartedly believes it is the uncrowned king of the nation should be one of the better LCS best-of-fives we've seen in recent memory.
Prediction: Team Liquid 3 - 2 Counter Logic Gaming