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Since the USA 7s team has started poorly in the Sevens World Series, I’ve been hearing the F-word a lot more lately.

F, as in fired. More specifically, should Head Coach Al Caravelli be fired for the poor results; the 1-10 streak, the 7-19 record for the entire series season, the frustrating errors.

When the USA was on the doorstep

In March of 2010 the USA made the final of the Adelaide 7s.

It was their first Cup Final, and while they lost that game, fans had understandably high expectations afterward. What happened? Player turnover.

This was a team that had already absorbed the loss of Chris Wyles, and Todd Clever to pro contracts and Mike Palefau to family responsibilities. What happened to the squad that made that final?

Marco Barnard: Was injured, now no longer with the team.

Mark Bokhoven: Still with the program, although didn’t play with the team in the last two tournaments.

Nick Edwards: With the team off and on.

Paul Emerick: Playing professionally in England.

Matt Hawkins: Still with the team.

Nese Malifa: With 15s team then injured. Currently injured again.

Zach Pangelinan: Broke his ankle, just back playing now.

Leonard Peters: Returned to Hawaii for family reasons.

Tommy Saunders: No longer with the team.

Shalom Suniula: Still with the team.

Kevin Swiryn: Playing professionally in France.

Zack Test: Still with the team.


That’s the reality of the program, at least before the USOC contracts. Half of that team was pulled away by professional contracts, injury, or family reasons.

 


Is that enough to fire the coach? I asked Caravelli recently whether he feels especially under the gun, he said no – I didn’t expect any other answer, actually.

“I’m just working with the players to try to get the team better,” is what he said.

But it does seem as if Caravelli and USA team has to produce something in this next round of tournaments. They have a very tough road ahead of them in Hong Kong, where the tournament is set up as two 12-team contests. The Eagles are in the top half, which is good because it means they net at least five points.

But it’s bad because there are no easy games, at all. Every game will be very difficult, and given the USA’s record of late, any victory will be tough to come by.

So what if the Eagles go 0-5 in Hong Kong and 1-4 or something like it in Tokyo? Will that mean the coach has to go?

If you’re judging just on wins and losses, then, sure, you could look at the fact that in 2010-2011 the USA was 18-25 with an average score of 16-20. Last season the record was the same, 18-25, with the average score 17-21.5.

They are on pace right now to be 13-34 with an average score of 13-18. Clearly that record isn’t at the level of the last two years, and in addition, the wins are coming against lesser teams, as they have not made the Cup Round in any tournament.

So if you’re judging just on wins and losses, yes you can make a case for a coaching change, but there’s been nothing in the public rhetoric from Nigel Melville or the USOC that suggests they expected wins now. The only organizations that could really use the USA winning are USA 7s LLC (owned by RUGBYMag’s parent company) and NBC. They both would love to have the Eagles winning and playing for a trophy on Sunday.

It’s not just wins and losses. So what is it? What about the manner of the losing? Yeah, I can see that. This team has, not to put too fine a point on it, choked at key moments. In the 26 games they’ve played so far, ten times they had good possession late and were in a position to score to win the game. Only once, against Argentina in Dubai, did they succeed and win. Three times they screwed up and gave up a try that lost the game or put the game away.

Six other times they simply made a mistake and lost it. That’s infuriating for fans to see. Fans, and journalists for that matter, have the expectation that these players can put it together enough to score when the game is on the line. If they don’t score, we at least want them not to make silly errors that every player would acknowledge he shouldn’t make.

That’s what comes onto Caravelli’s doorstep. Dumb mistakes, and errors in fundamentals get blamed on coaches, that’s a fact of life.

On the plus side, I guess, is the fact that in nine of the USA’s 19 losses, they were this close to winning. That’s not just blowing smoke – they really were. So many of these games could have been won with a little more patience, or some better ball-handling, on just the last play.

But for me, that’s not enough to can a coach. Some mistakes, especially from a relatively young team, are to be expected. Impatience, which was the reason for some of the failed comebacks, is a result of youth, as well.

We don’t – or really we shouldn’t – expect a group of American players to waltz into the World Series and pull off clutch plays every time. We do expect them to execute, and to execute to the point that they pull a last-play win off sometimes … heck a 40% success rate would have given the Eagles three more victories.

And calling the team young is a legitimate call. Remember, when RUGBYMag.com asked readers how the new 7s contracts should be apportioned, the overwhelming majority chose “Build for 2016.” Well, building for 2016 means growing pains along the way.

The USA team has been in residency now for about a month. When they arrive in Hong Kong it will have been about two months. They have already improved from a team that was losing all its games, and getting shut out in most, to a team good enough to beat France, and to be within a score of Argentina, Canada and Australia. I think it’s legitimate to hope they will turn those one-possession games into better execution and some victories.

So we’ve asked the USA 7s program to take a bunch of young guys and mold them into the central group to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. Then we can’t fire the coach for not winning right now. You work with a coach based on specific expectations, so you should continue employment based on those expectations. This USA team isn’t under the expectation to blow teams away. They are, however, expected to execute better than they have been.

So here’s the deal – the Eagles 7s team has to perform better. They have the athletes and the ability to beat most of the teams on the circuit. But they can’t afford to get sloppy, ham-handed, or impatient when the game is there to be won. They have to execute, especially when the game is on the line. If they do that in Hong Kong and Japan, then we will see victories, points, maybe even a trophy.

If that improvement doesn’t happen, well then we’re probably going to have this conversation again.