Team USA Remains #1 Entering Final Leg of Series
Five straight finals and a cup victory to open the season elevated team USA’s expectation to accomplishments thought utterly unimaginable as recently as 2014. At the close of the 2013–14 season, the Eagles were thirteenth and only one point (41) further away from relegated Spain (20) than to twelfth-place Scotland (61). The results left serious questions as to whether the United States, the two-time defending Olympic gold medalists from 1920 and 1924, would even earn a spot to compete in the 2016 games. It looked like the team’s best hope was for Canada, which had reached the final in Glasgow and finished sixth on the season, to claim a top-four season finish in 2014–15 and open the door for qualification through NACRA.
Then came the Mike Friday era of American rugby. The team flipped the script, moving up from thirteenth to sixth, notched three semifinal appearances—matching the all-time number of semifinal appearances in the team’s history—and won the London Sevens. Still, that success meant needing to win the NACRA qualifier or hope to snag the final available spot in an incredibly difficult tournament. Team USA came away with the NACRA crown and accompanying Olympic bid. But that path still almost certainly meant one match against Canada in the NACRA final with the winner going to the games and the loser left with an unbelievably tenuous path forward.
Heading into this season, there was one major goal: finish in the top four and secure a bid to the Olympic games. That goal became realistic when the Eagles finished second in Dubai. That resulted in the team’s highest-ever ranking on the series standings, edging out the temporary third-place slot to start the 2015–16 campaign. Things got much more interesting after the Cape Town when the Eagles again reached a final, only the sixth time the team had done so. It meant the Americans were atop the standings for the first time. We all “knew” it was an aberration that would end as soon as the next tournament. And it did … kind of. Again, the United States reached the final and lost to Fiji, meaning Fiji was now atop the board. But Fiji was not alone, instead tied with the plucky Americans.
Ok, so the Eagles were still technically in first place. But again, we all knew that wouldn’t last. One more tournament, another silver medal, and it was now New Zealand’s turn to top the table. The mighty All Blacks Sevens, boasting more series titles than all other nations combined, was still not alone. Yet again, the Americans were somehow tied with New Zealand. Then came Las Vegas. Final number five, this time a win, and the United States was now alone at the top.
Through two fourth-place finishes and a bronze medal, the Eagles remain in first place. Although the last three tournaments were not top-two finishes, they were still top-four finishes. That means eight semifinals in eight tournaments. And no other nation has been to more than six semifinals this year. A bit of perspective: the most cup-round appearances the team has ever had in a season is eight. The Eagles have already matched that number with two tournaments to go. Another bit of perspective, last season, the Eagles set their single-season wins record at 34, with a 34–4–21 record. With a minimum of ten more matches to go, the team has already tied that win total, going 34–14.
The Eagles had a chance to officially clinch Olympic qualification in Singapore. They fell short of that goal. Had they finished three points clear of England, it would have been mathematical. Instead, it was England with the bronze medal decider to shave two points off the American lead. Of course, England, who sits in fifth, is not eyeing the top spot. The Britons’ lone hope of qualifying for the games through the series has its eyes fixed on edging up one spot into fourth place. And that goal took a major hit with South Africa posting its second cup in the last three tournaments.
Many thought the American train had derailed in Hong Kong when it took Spain beating Wales to open the door for a 1–2 team USA to reach the cup round. Still, the Americans dutifully claimed the bronze medal and turned their attention to Singapore. In Singapore, two other top-five nations found themselves needing a bit of luck in pool play to sneak into the cup round at 1–2. And had either missed that bit of luck, it would have been a major moment for team USA.
The Eagles, without Martin Iosefo and losing Brett Thompson midway through, swept through pool play. They started by redeeming their Hong Kong humiliation at the hands of Wales, winning 31–12. They then survived a tough challenge from Kenya (17–14). And claimed another redemption by hammering England (22–7). The loss was England’s second in pool play, having falling to rival Wales the match before. As had been the case in Hong Kong, if Wales had won its final match of pool play, a top-five nation would have been bumped to the challenge trophy competition. Instead, like Hong Kong, Wales stumbled and opened the door to a three-way tie at 1–2, missing out on points differential. Had England missed the quarterfinal, the United States would have locked up Olympic qualification with a win in any Day 2 match.
England was not alone in narrowly avoiding catastrophe. Out of nowhere, Fiji almost missed the cup round. The Fijians romped over Canada (50–12) then were stunned by Scotland (19–12). Fresh off the shocking win, Scotland came crashing down to earth in its pool decider, losing to Canada (33–10). It turns out, if Scotland had won, then Fiji would be out because Fiji registered a second defeat when South Africa secured the top spot in the pool (17–7).
While two top-five nations narrowly avoided missing the cup round, the back-to-back silver medalist, France, was not as lucky. Many expected France to have a return to normalcy in Singapore, but few could expect it would come in pool play. A sound win over Hong Kong (26–7) was followed up by losses to Australia (24–12) and Argentina (19–7). Unsurprisingly, the otherwise in-form French secured the challenge trophy on Day 2.
For team USA, day 2 was as difficult as they come. They managed a 12–10 lead over Argentina heading into halftime after trailing 10–0 to start the match. Gutsy defense and some luck got the Americans the win after a scoreless second half.
The semifinals meant a fourth match of the season against South Africa. The Eagles have long struggled to matchup with the Blitzbokke style of play. This year, the Americans have bested South Africa twice. Both victories have come in the quarterfinals. In the two contests outside the quarterfinals, including this semifinal match, South Africa has had the edge. The Eagles struggled for possession in the first half and could not register their first points until Stephen Tomasin’s score to start the second half. A Springbok try soon answered the American score. Any doubt to the result was put to rest when Tomasin was shown a yellow card and South Africa was awarded a penalty try. Joe Schroeder would manage a conciliation try, but the result was already certain: South Africa 24, USA 12.
The match against England for the bronze medal was a heated exchange of two sides desperate to finish on the podium. Both nations were shown yellow cards in the first half, but it was ultimately the United States that would suffer the worst from cards in the contest. The Eagles were first to score, with the try coming by way of Marcus Tupuola. Tomasin connected on the conversion, with Captain Madison Hughes beginning the match on the bench. England cracked back with two converted tries of its own to make it 14–7 at intermission.
In the second half, England earned another yellow card, but team USA’s Joe Schroeder, recipient of the first-half yellow card, was shown red. Down a man for the remainder of the match, the challenge proved too much for the United States, ceding the bronze medal and two-points on offer to England: England 28, USA 7.
The loss opened the door for Fiji to tie the United States for first place. But a South African penalty goal in the final gave the Blitzbokke the 20–19 victory and left Fiji three points behind the USA in the standings.
With just two tournaments to go, the race for the title will be hotly contested. The Eagles have drawn a fantastic pool for London, as they will face Australia, Wales, and Spain. If the Americans are in top form, then they will top Pool D. Their hopes will be vastly improved by the return of Perry Baker, Danny Barrett, and Martin Iosefo. Coach Friday in an interview following the bronze-medal match indicated that Maka Unufe, who has been unavailable due to injury all season, may also be in the mix for the final two tournaments.
The final leg of the series gets underway at the London Sevens in May.