Dubai 2017: USA Women Reach Final, Men Go Winless
Dubai has long proven a tough testing ground for both the men and women who represent the United States in Eagles’ shirts. Two years ago, the USA men finished third and hit record marks with consecutive victories over New Zealand. Last year it was a less impressive victory in the consolation bracket ahead of a record-setting season. For the women, Dubai has long proven even more problematic. This year, it is almost impossible to scrip to more vastly opposite results than what happened between the men and women in Dubai.
The women were the first to take the pitch to start the 2017–2018 season. For team USA, a young squad faced a tough pool. As feared, the opening match was not forgiving for the Eagles. Five moths removed from edging France for sixth place in the series standings, the Americans were unable to down the French. The match was tightly contested the whole way through. An early try and conversion by Alev Kelter gave the United States an early 7–0 lead, but France had stormed back by half to go ahead 12–7. A try from fellow Olympian, Ryan Carlyle drew the match level midway through the second half, with Kelter’s conversion attempt missing its mark. But France was next to get on the board with a converted try, leaving team USA needing a converted score on full time to earn a draw. The Eagles got the try from Naya Tapper–giving her a career of 37 tries in a mere 34 matches–but captain Nicole Heavirland was unable to slot the conversion, leaving France the narrow victor.
The second match saw the Americans slide into the winner’s column. A narrow favorite over South Africa, due largely to experience on the series, the Eagles had to earn the win over an always tough South African contingent. In the closing minutes of the first half, facing a five-point deficit, Tapper got in for her second try of the tournament. Heavirland added the two-pointer for the narrow, but short-lived lead. South Africa answered back with a second unconverted try of the half to go ahead 10–7 at the break.
In the second half, team USA turned on the class. In only her second ever match on the series, Abby Gustaitis gave her side the lead in the second half with an unconverted score. But South Africa again fought back for the slim 15–12 lead. With time running out, the always dangerous Tapper found the space she needed for her second try of the match, third of the tournament. Her breakaway speed left the defenders in her dust and situated her captain for a simple conversion to close the match: USA 19, RSA 15.
Heading into the final match of the day, team USA held out hope of a top-two finish in Pool A, which would secure a spot in the cup quarterfinal. The Black Ferns of New Zealand entered the match having demolished South Africa (40–0) and controlled France (28–7). With France having beaten South Africa (29–5) moments before the Eagles and Ferns took jogged onto the pitch, team USA was looking to force a three-way tie atop the pool. New Zealand’s +61 stood well out of reach for the United States, who came in at +2. But France’s +5 could be caught with a four-point victory over New Zealand.
Although wins over New Zealand are rare, it was only nine months ago that the Eagles topped the Black Ferns (19–12) to advance to the Sydney final. Unfortunately for team USA, this day would not mirror that warm February 4th down under. New Zealand struck out to a 14–0 lead a quarter of the way in. Naya Tapper added yet another try, which cut the deficit in half after Kelter notched the two points on offer. But a relentless New Zealand pushed its lead out to 33–7 before the next American points were scored. It was seven more points through the combination of Heavirland’s try and Kelter’s conversion. They were the last points of the match for the United States, but two more tries and one conversion still remained for New Zealand. On full time it was New Zealand 45, United States 14.
Despite the devastating loss, the points differential was still just enough for the Eagles to sneak into the quarterfinal. At a –29 differential, team USA edged Ireland (–33) for the eighth seed into the quarterfinal. Unfortunately, the reward for snagging the eighth seed was a rematch with top-seeded New Zealand to start Day 2.
Undaunted by the gravity of the uphill climb, the American women stormed out on Day 2 to shock the world. Shocking the heavily favored Ferns, Naya Tapper got the Eagles started with a try at the midway point of the first half. Kelter punched the conversion over for the initial seven-point lead. New Zealand refused to back down and leveled it at seven each to start the second half. A second-half try for the always dangerous Portia Woodman saw New Zealand take its first and last lead of the match. In do-or-die time, American Kelsi Stockert, a sub in the waning minutes of the second half, got the score to draw the teams even. That setup Kelter to kick the game winning conversion sending her team into a shocking semifinal appearance.
From there, the women were still not done. Matching against a dangerous Russian team, the Eagles hurried to a 14–0 first-half lead with two tries and a conversion by Kelter and a conversion by Heavirland. But true to recent form, Russia struck back with two tries and a conversion early in the second half to close to within two points. But in the final minute, Heavirland gave the Americans a third try and Kelter’s second conversion of the match made it a two-score advantage without enough time for Russia to come back. At the final whistle it was USA 21, Russia 12, sending the United States to its first final since Sydney in February, and only the team’s third since Atlanta in 2015.
A victory in the final would have moved team USA into an exclusive club of only four other nations to have won a tournament on the series. But, in their fourth attempt, team USA once again came up short. Perennial power Australia dominated the match with seventeen points in each half against no scores from the United States.
The result was a tremendous turnaround from a rough day 1 and a remarkable effort tying the best finish for an American women’s team. Alev Kelter was quite deservedly named to the Dream Team for her efforts. With young talent surrounding a strong core, this team has a great deal of potential. The women will get a chance to head back home to build on what they’ve learned ahead of their next outing at the end of January in Sydney.
While the American women were making positive history, the American men were setting record lows. Since taking over as head coach for team USA, Mike Friday was losing in the consolation semifinals. That has happened exactly three times for Coach Friday since taking over in 2014. By comparison, in that same span he has reached the final twice, winning once, the semifinal eleven times, and twenty-two times, while only missing the quarterfinal a total of seven times heading into Dubai. But there is now a new record low: 0–5 and dead last. And none of that seemed even remotely possible with this roster coming in.
Dubai is always tough, but the only major omission from last year’s core unit is Andrew Durutalo. But the team had Carlin Isles back and a lot of great talent with players such as Ben Pinkelman and Stephen Tomasin now every bit the stars on the pitch as Danny Barrett, Folau Niua, Madison Hughes, and Perry Baker. The tournament began with all eyes on Baker, who had just been named the World Rugby 7s Player of the Year.
Baker started with team USA as a parallel to Carlin Isles. Maybe a hair slower, definitely more raw to begin with, but showed a lot of room to grow. Two years ago, Isles stepped away from the side to try his hand at becoming a two-sport Olympian, narrowly missing out on qualification in track. Then Isles was hampered with injuries that season ahead of missing most of last year with injury. In that time, Baker blossomed into an all-around player. Both the quickest man on the pitch and having an excellent eye for defense. For most of their early career, Isles and Baker were treated as somewhat interchangeable on the wing, with Coach Friday picking the hot legs on the day. But we learned in Dubai that any doubt that Baker has far surpassed Isles and become an indispensable cog in the machine has been put to rest.
In the second minute of the very first match of the tournament, Baker suffered what appeared to be a concussion and was out from then on. The phase of play that took out Baker led to the first points against the United States in the tournament and the team never found its footing thereafter. Isles started the next three matches, but was replaced in the final matchup with Matai Leuta getting the start. Isles still has world-class speed and had a score against Wales that made him look like a man amongst boys with a curl and sprint through a flat-footed Welsh defense. But he was often a liability in defense where Baker is a pure asset. One try in particular–a score by New Zealand’s Joe Ravouvou–showed how far the drop off is. To be sure, Isles is still a net plus on the team and that particular score could have happened to anyone. I’m not trying to call out Isles, but am trying to point out how big of an absence is felt when Baker is unavailable.
But let’s look at what happened in the matches.
First up was Argentina. The Eagles started well by stealing the opening kick. But after Stephen Tomasin was dragged to touch, about nothing else went the United States’ way. Argentina won the lineout and turned on the pressure. In the phase of play, the reigning Baker was apparently concussed in a tackle attempt, ending his tournament. Argentina finished the possession with a five-pointer in the corner. Shortly after, an Argentine handling error on the USA line narrowly prevented a second Argentina try. Tomasin was soon able to find a gap to give team USA the narrow lead with a try under the post, capped with a Madison Hughes conversion. With just under a minute left in the half, Argentina added a second try, this one converted, to take a five-point lead at the break.
To start the second half, Carlin Isles broke free for a try under the post. Hughes’s second conversion put the United States ahead by two with five minutes remaining. It then took two minutes to crack the American defense, but the next score went to Argentina with an unconverted score in the far-right corner to make it 17–14 in Argentina’s favor. Left with just two minutes to overcome the narrow deficit, the Eagles had plenty of time. But a quick penalty against the North Americans put Argentina in the driver seat with a kick to touch and lineout throw at just under a minute left. Argentina won the lineout and worked the ball into the corner to go in front two scores to seal the win. Argentina 22, USA 14.
Argentina was always going to be a tough match, but one the United States should have won. Despite the setback, wins over Samoa and New Zealand would put the Eagles where they needed to be to close day 1. But a resurgent Samoa had other plans. The Eagles started with possession and looked like Carlin Isles would break free for a try in the first thirty seconds. Oddly, Isles appeared to have a line to the left corner but chose not to back himself and instead pulled up and went into contact against two tacklers with no support. The result was a turnover and a Joe Perez breakaway converted try for Samoa a short while later.
A beautiful restart take and quick run from Martin Iosefo looked likely to get team USA back in the match, but a penalty concession at the Samoa twenty-two and then penalty at the ensuing lineout, put Samoa back in strong attacking position. Samoa did not capitalize right away, with a handling error setting up an American lineout at the Samoa ten-meter line. But an overthrow at the lineout was taken by Samoa and ended up an unconverted Samoan score just a few passes later. The Eagles finally put together a streak of class following the restart with a cracking run by Madison Hughes passed back to Stephen Tomasin. The ball worked to Danny Barrett who putthe Eagles on the board with a try under the sticks. Hughes added the conversion to pull within five of Samoa. The ensuing restart failed to go ten-meters, depriving the United States from stringing together consecutive attacks and the half soon ended with Samoa the 12–7 leaders.
The second half started with promise as Barrett was able to get the ball to the Samoan five-meter line but a penalty turnover for not releasing ended the attack. Samoa would use that possession to score another converted try against a lackluster American defense. The Samoans soon got the ball back and extended the lead to 26–7. In the end, American Maka Unufe would get the Eagles a try and conversion to end the match, but at full time it was 26–14, and team USA was left heading into a match against New Zealand with no chance to reach the quarterfinal, but needing to right the ship.
The All Blacks Sevens entered looking to be in good form. Indeed, New Zealand would go on to lose to South Africa in the Dubai final. The United States, however, looked anything but good in the first two matches. New Zealand was first to score with a five-pointer, just a minute and a half into the match. Two minutes later, Carlin Isles found space on the left wing for a try off an excellently timed pass from Stephen Tomasin. Madison Hughes could not add the conversion, leaving things level. After several minutes of back-and-forth play, New Zealand dotted down a second try to close the half. The long conversion allowed the New Zealanders to start the second half with a seven-point lead.
Team USA stole the opening possession and struck back with a chase by Martin Iosefo of a kick ahead by Folau Niua. Hughes added the straight-forward conversion to draw level. For the second straight restart, Danny Barrett was able to steal the restart, but New Zealand stood stiff in defense, dragging Isles to touch to obtain New Zealand’s first possession of the half. It was New Zealand that was next to score when Joe Ravouvou easily fended a tackle attempt by Isles on the wing. Trailing 17–12 with two and a half minutes remaining, the Americans once again found themselves in position to salvage a victory. But it was not to be. The only remaining points to be had went the way of New Zealand with another converted try. To send team USA to the consolation bracket as the bottom seed from Pool D.
After an abysmal Day 1, team USA looked to repeat its challenge trophy victory from the 2016 Dubai Sevens. It was the first time a Mike Friday coached team, of any nation, had gone 0–3 on Day 1. But, in order to do that, the United States would have to get by rival Canada. Both teams were extremely disappointed to start the 2017–2018 campaign in the bottom tier of Day 2. Just three tournaments ago, these two teams met in the Singapore Sevens final and again in the bronze medal match of London.
The match was a physical competition with points being very tough to come by. Midway through the half, Canada hammered at the American line for several phases winning multiple penalties. But the Eagles did not break and won a penalty in return. Team USA kicked to touch near the American twenty-two and began an attack of its own, which paid off with a try from Ben Pinkelman in the right corner for the first and only points of the half.
The second half mirrored the first in physicality and difficulty to find space for either team. Four minutes in, Canada scored the leveler in the right corner but could not connect on the conversion. The score was the product of minutes of consistent pressure from Canada, starving team USA of any second-half possession. The United States was poised to take the lead after a hard charge by Tomasin deep into Canada territory, but the attack was ended with a penalty just outside the Canada five-meter line with under a minute remaining. Canada kicked to touch, leaving just enough time for a lineout. Canada won the throw but failed to make much of it before kicking to touch to regroup heading into extra time.
Although a surprising decision for Canada to choose to kick the ball out to get a breather ahead of extra time, in the end it proved the right move for the Canadians. Niua’s kickoff was contested but knocked on by the Eagles. Canada methodically moved to just inside the USA ten, but Barrett forced a Canadian penalty to give the Eagles possession. Niua kicked to touch just inside the Canada ten-meter and the Eagles won the lineout. The Americans looked strong in attack until a pass from Maka Unufe to Madison Hughes was dropped by Hughes, giving Canada a scrum inside its own ten-meter line. The Canadians won the scrum and from there, they would find just enough space to win the match when yet more consistent pressure and safe play with the ball lead to an offload and try to end the match.
With a disastrous tournament to that point, the United States was left needing to best Wales to simply not finish dead last in the tournament. Mike Friday shook up the lineup a bit with Isles on the bench to start. Folau Niua was also not in the starting lineup and was in street clothes on the bench. Naima Fuala’au, who came to Dubai in the thirteen jersey, along with Matai Leuta got the starts.
The match started with the American kick not going ten meters. Wales turned on the gas and won a penalty deep in the USA half. After the slight delay to reset following the penalty, Wales wasted no more time in finding a seam and scoring a five-pointer in the right corner. Wales won the restart but surrendered possession right away with a penalty, forced by Madison Hughes. The Eagles spent the next two minutes with ball in hand, but a missed pass gave the Welsh attacking ball again and Wales did not disappoint its fans, capitalizing on the possession with a second try in the far right corner in the fifth minute. This time, the long conversion was true, putting Wales ahead 12–0 with a minute and a half left before the break. It was more than enough time for Wales to build on its advantage, with a third try, second converted, a couple dozen seconds after the restart.
Martin Iosefo snagged the kickoff to finally get team USA on the right foot as the hooter sounded to end the half. It looked like Danny Barrett might be in for a try but a great defensive effort stopped him just short. But Barrett was able to hit supporting Tomasin with the offload who cam within an eyelash of a try as his attempted grounding while being dragged into touch was deemed a knock on and ended the half with the United States down 19–0.
The second half started with yet another Welsh try, this one coming off a turnover and free run under the post in the ninth minute of the match. At that point, Wales led 24–0 with four minutes left in the American’s tournament. With several subs (Joe Schroeder, Carlin Isles, Malon Al-Jiboori, and Maka Unufe), the Eagles finally got on the scoreboard with a try by Maka Unufe and conversion from Madison Hughes. A second try came when Carlin Isles danced around a flat-footed Welsh defense for a try under the post. Hughes added another conversion to cut the lead to ten with 1:20 to play. But the next points were for Wales with a streaking run down the left wing wrapped around under the post for the converted score to make it 31–14. The United States was able to muster a consolation try from Joe Schroeder and conversion by Stephen Tomasin.
So what is the takeaway? Aside from the realization that the team is nowhere close to the same world-beaters without Baker and that this probably means they won’t be Series champion–hard to take that top spot when you start twenty-one points behind–the answer is not too much. The squad is still the same great team we have seen the past couple years and they should absolutely bounce back in Cape Town, next week. Finishing behind non-core invitee Uganda is utterly humiliating, but, in the grand scheme of things, meaningless.
The biggest problem will be breaking back into the cup quarterfinal. That is not for lack of talent, but of opportunity. The Series rewards success and punishes failure. The top four finishers are slotted into the top of the upcoming pool and the next twelve are drawn in lottery in groupings of four. That means when team USA misses the top eight, it falls into a pool of at least three teams who are accustomed to being in the top eight, the USA included. And that is what the Eagles are looking at in Cape Town. Pool B is easily the toughest draw; a reality the United States is getting quite familiar with over the past two years as Fortuna has smiled upon them come pool-drawing time.
The Americans will have a rematch with New Zealand, this one coming in the first match of the day. Aside from beating the United States in Dubai, the All Blacks Sevens went on to lose in the final to defending-series-champion South Africa. The second seed is Australia, which finished fifth in Dubai and is always a contender to win the tournament. And the three seed is a Spanish team that beat France in pool play, blew out Russia, and beat Argentina in the challenge trophy semifinal ahead of losing the rematch to France in the trophy final.
That means the United States is facing the second strongest 1 seed, top 2 seed, and second strongest 3 seed. By comparison, Uganda–the four seed in Pool C–will face England, Scotland, and Argentina. That is the third 1 seed, tied-for-third 2 seed, and tied-for-third 3 seed. So the antepenultimate number 1 seed along with the two lowest seeds you can draw for the second and third seeds. It will be a tough row to hoe for team USA to land back into the quarterfinal, but certainly realistic. If Baker and Niua are available for Cape Town, the team should be back to a threat to win it all. It is not unprecedented for a team to finish last and win a cup in the same season. Kenya did it in 2016 with a last-place showing in Vancouver and cup victory in Singapore, with only a single tournament sandwiched between.
There’s certainly reason to be worried, but it is not time to panic.