2019 HSBC USA Sevens Preview
This year marks the tenth time the USA Sevens has competed in the world-famous city of Las Vegas, Nevada. That milestone is most certainly notable, but far from the most important heading into this year’s tournament. For the first time ever, team USA enters the tournament as the defending champion, having assembled an improbable cup victory despite myriad injuries along the way. But that is not the only first: this year also marks the first time that the Eagles enter tied atop the standings of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. Having reached four consecutive finals to start the season, the Americans are still desperate for their first gold medals since last year’s trip to Las Vegas.
The Eagles are on a historic pace. The highest the team has ever finished a season is fifth, in 2016–17. This season, it is crucial to finish in the top four, as such a result will mean automatic qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. Failure to crack the top four will leave two narrow paths to the games that are certainly viable, but far more treacherous. Few would have imagined when the addition of rugby sevens to the Olympic games was first announced, that there was any scenario in which Samoa would not qualify. But that is exactly what happened in 2016. The hot start for the Americans’ qualification campaign has helped, but the Series hits its midway point this weekend and the Eagles will need to avoid a misstep in the back half of the journey.
The four finals appearances also are unprecedented in the program’s history. The team first reached a final at the 2010 Adelaide Sevens, a severe loss to Samoa. It would not be until the 2015 London Sevens that team USA would return to a final, that time coming away with the nation’s first cup. A third final was soon in the cards when the United States entered as the heavy favorite over rival Canada at the 2017 Singapore Sevens. Unfortunately for team USA, Canada prevailed that day. Last year’s triumph at the USA Sevens was just the Eagles’ fourth finals appearance. Then came this season: four tournaments, four finals. The team has doubled its all-time finals appearances and done what no other team has done this season: medal in all four tournaments.
Prior to Coach Mike Friday taking over, team USA had only been to three semifinals. That is a mark he has now equaled or surpassed in every season since. It is also a mark that the Eagles have reached every single season in Las Vegas under Coach Friday. And, in that stretch, the team has never posted a lesser finish than the year before. The lone season under Coach Hawkins, in 2014, team USA finished as shield champion. The following year, it was fourth place under Coach Friday. The same mark was hit in 2016. In 2017, it was one better, with the Eagles claiming the bronze. And then, in 2018, it was gold medals and a cup. If history holds serve, then the Eagles would head north to Vancouver in sole possession of the Series lead.
The pool draw is extremely favorable for a strong run. Competing in Pool B, team USA will start with Kenya on Friday afternoon (4:50pm), then meet in a rematch of the 2018 final against Argentina that evening (7:51pm). The Eagles crushed Kenya (41–0) last month in Sydney and will be expected to again come away with the win. Argentina may prove a stiffer test, but the Eagles are the red-hot side and carry the confidence of a 31–14 favorable result from Cape Town.
If team USA can finish day 1 unblemished, there is a distinct possibility that the Eagles will have already secured the top seed. Regardless, they will take on France in the Early afternoon (1:26pm). Should the Americans claim the top seed in Pool B, it will be a 6:52pm kickoff against the Pool C runner-up to close Day 2. That will not be an easy match. Pool C is topped by England and South Africa. Those two sides have combined for three bronze medals this season and are always tough competition.
Although England finished ahead of South Africa in the most recent tournament, it is probably a better match for the Eagles to take on England in the quarterfinal. The Americans have won all three contests with England this season since a tough overtime loss in the World Cup Sevens quarterfinal this past summer. Even acknowledging the near impossibility of beating a good team four times in a row, the simple fact is that the United States tends to match up very poorly with the speed of South Africa. Even though this is not the same caliber of Blitzbokke as the past two seasons, which both ended with the Series title, it is still probably a more difficult pairing.
In order for the United States to make it five finals in five tournaments, they will likely need to get past Fiji in the semifinal, which will be a tall ask, given the results in the finals of Cape Town (29–15 loss) and Hamilton (38–0 loss). But don’t count the Americans out. They were able to best Fiji in the Dubai quarterfinals (24–14) and will have the home-town support.
The squad for Vegas sees Captain Madison Hughes and Stephen Tomasin both healthy and in the lineup. Both men were kept out of last year’s side due to injuries. Unfortunately absent due to rehab from injury remains Perry Baker, who joins Maka Unufe as unavailable due to injuries. Both Unufe and Baker played huge roles in last year’s USA Sevens success.
The two breakout stars of last year’s team, Martin Iosefo and Kevon Williams are, both set to return to Sam Boyd Stadium in hopes of wearing another gold medal. Alongside them are the grizzled veterans you all know in Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, Matai Leuta, Folau Niua, and Carlin Isles. Cementing his core status in the squad is Brett Thompson who has now made every selection since returning to the lineup after last year’s USA Sevens.
Among the fresher faces is Maceo Brown, who has also been selected to every tournament this season. Marcus Tupuola rounds out the twelve-man active roster. After being the unused thirteenth man in Dubai, Tupuola gets his first nod in the active roster. Sliding into the thirteen shirt is Ben Broselle who supplants Pat Blair for reserve duties.
You can catch all the action on the ESPN family of networks. Or, better yet, get your way out to Sam Boyd Stadium and take in the action in person.