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It was a turbulent day two for the USA Men in Las Vegas. Things looked great for a while, then terrible for a while, and then great again. The day wrapped up on a definite high note as the Eagles headed off to rest and prepare to play South Africa in the cup semi-finals.
In their first match, which was their final pool play match, they gave up a lead against England and lost in the last play of the match to finish second in the pool. In the second match, a cup quarter final against Argentina, they came back from a 19-point deficit to win 21-19.
After the win over Argentina, Madison Hughes, Stephen Tomasin, and coach Mike Friday all emphasized the belief the team has in itself. “The desire and the attitude from the guys, it was absolutely amazing,” said Hughes. “At our jersey presentation, we had Nate Ebner talk to us. They believed in each other and we really took that. We didn’t go the way we wanted to in that first half. We believed in each other, we fought for each other, and we came out with the result.” While a lot of things happened in the second half as part of the USA comeback, one essential component was a difficult conversion that Hughes made. It was windy all day, so no kicks were easy. “I want to kick when the wind is a bit calmer because it played havoc with one earlier I hit pretty well. I struck it nicely, got lucky, and helped the team out there, so I am happy to do that.”
In looking ahead to South Africa tomorrow, Hughes commented, “They’ve been the best team in the world so far this year, so we know we’re going to have to be at our best. But I think that second half performance we put in—if we can do that for 14 minutes we’ve got a shot. But we know we’re going to have to be at our best.”
Friday put it succinctly: “We are where we want to be on day three. We’re in the mix.”
“For the boys to recover from 19 down is lessons learned from the game before,” said Friday. “What you saw there is kind of a mirror image of what England did to us. Half time was very composed. They were concentrating, they were focused. We talked about one play at a time, one moment at a time, and see where it takes us.”
Friday was quite positive when speaking about Tomasin Friday night, and Tomasin had another solid day. Speaking about the struggle to come back and get the win, Tomasin said, “That’s what it takes to continue to push ourselves up the top eight. To have the crowd behind us like that, it changes the complexion of the game. When they get behind us, it fuels us. I’ve never been part of a game like that, not in a USA uniform. Coming back like that was a huge effort from all the boys. We’ve been playing well so far this weekend, so at no point in that game did we ever think that we were completely out of it.”
The match took on a different tone when Maka Unufe came onto the field. He scored the first two tries in the comeback, and Perry Baker scored the third.
“I am just trying to do my part to get people like [Unufe] the chance to score,” said Tomasin. “Maka had an amazing game. That guy changed the game completely for us. He completely took over the game by himself. My job is to get those guys those situations. I don’t have the speed that Maka has, I don’t have the speed that Perry has. My job is to be annoying to the other team and to get the loose balls on the ground.”
Friday echoed the value of Unufe in the second half: “Maka came on, changed the game. He’s worked so hard these last six, eight weeks to get fit again. That’s a credit to him and his family. His wife has been amazing in supporting him and driving him.”
Speaking more generally about his experience this weekend, Tomasin commented, “I feel great. I am just really happy to be back in a USA uniform. I had a couple bad years with injuries. Before, I didn’t understand how quickly it can go away. Now I understand that every game is very precious.”
“We’re believing in each other,” said Hughes, “but when you’ve got a lot of people cheering us on it just reinforces that belief.”
"I love playing in front of a crowd like this," said Baker. "They are backing you up, supporting. You hear them booing when things don’t go right and cheering 'USA.' It’s unbelievable. You just want to bring your upmost game when you got a fan base like this."
Saturday certainly reinforced the idea that at these World Series tournaments, anything can happen in any given match from moment to moment. There is still a daunting task in front of the Eagles to get into the finals, but anything might happen.