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The United States are through to a third straight Cup Quarterfinal appearance after a 2-0 Friday night at Sam Boyd Stadium. After thrashing Japan, 52-12, in the opener, a performance that didn’t leave much room for criticism of the American side, the Eagles struggled to put down Portugal in a 19-7 decision that provided plenty of teaching moments.
The USA left points on the board early. After the opening restart was taken cleanly, Maka Unufe knocked on an offload that would have surely resulted in a try. Shortly thereafter, the Eagles turned the ball over, and instead of switching field and attacking Portugal on the fringes, they cut up field and eventually lost it in the tackle.
The most glaring poor decision was a pop kick from Folau Niua near the attacking 22. Instead of moving the ball wide and utilizing a five-on-three advantage, he tried an up-and-under that yielded no results.
At halftime, Mike Friday urged his players to move the ball to space and play for the team, but just after the second stanza kicked off, Niua took contact in the middle of the field and Portugal wound up with possession.
“That was a little bit frustrating, that performance,” said Friday after the game. “A little bit of people going off on their own agenda, which I won’t tolerate. I’m going to have words about that. We’re a team first, and we’re not going to have that sort of individual, to be candid, lunacy, creeping into our game.”
Down 7-5 just before the half, having let those aforementioned opportunities fall by the wayside, Perry Baker put the home team back on top, taking a smart line for an offload and a try. He emphatically celebrated the score.
“I just don’t want to let a pretender become a contender, so whatever it took to try and get the team to stay in it,” said the speedster. “It was a hard fought game, and just any momentum I could try and spark, and it was right before halftime. We needed it.”
The USA made the top eight last week in New Zealand and in South Africa back in December. On both occasions they lost in the Cup Quarterfinals. That won’t be enough to please the players this go around.
“Our goal is to get into the Cup. We want to compete in the last finals of the day,” said Baker. “Last week we let up a little bit and we ended up losing it. We came out today and had another opportunity, and we really didn’t want to let that slip away.”
The only other time the United States has made the Cup rounds three tournaments in a row, back in 2013, a pair of wins over South Africa highlighted the run. The Eagles play the Blitzbokke first thing Saturday for the pool title. They have played the seemingly bulletproof South Africans tight a couple of times this season, but not been able to pull out a win.
“We’re going to play our game tomorrow. We’re going to learn from the mistakes of this last game and get recovery and go them,” said Zack Test. “We had them last weekend – we just made a couple of mistakes and let them back in the game, and tomorrow we just can’t make those mistakes.”