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The turf at Sam Boyd Stadium has been kind to the home team recently, with the Eagles reaching the semifinals each of the last three USA Sevens. They’ve gradually inched closer to a berth in the championship match, losing to New Zealand by two tries in 2015, then Fiji by seven in 2016 and South Africa by three last year. Both Fiji in ’16 and South Africa in ’17 went on to win the whole enchilada. Last year they won the bronze medal match for the first time at home.
So expectations are high for Team USA ahead of the pool opener against Samoa Friday. That game should be a massively physical encounter, like it was a month ago in Hamilton, New Zealand, where Manu Samoa edged the USA 14-10. The big guys, like Danny Barrett and Ben Pinkelman, are going to have to come up big to win and keep ball. The second match Friday could go a long way toward dictating what kind of weekend it’ll be for the Eagles. Australia is 10-2 the last two tournaments, winning in Sydney and finishing third in Hamilton.
“Australia are the form team at the moment, with the way they’ve gone the last two legs, and they’ve got a very potent attack, so our defensive game is going to have to be on point against them,” USA head coach Mike Friday said.
The storyline for the USA coming into the weekend is the same as it was heading into the last leg – how will the team cope with the losses of captain Madison Hughes and starting hooker Stephen Tomasin, both of whom are out with knee injuries. The issue is compounded by the fact that Hughes’ direct understudy was Tomasin, so Friday is really working with a third-choice halfback-by-committee to stand next to Folau Niua.
“As unfortunate as it is losing Madison and losing Tomasin as well, who would have been the natural person to step into that role, we’ve had to adjust, and it gives opportunity,” Friday said.
On that halfback committee is Maka Unufe, who has added flyhalf to the list of positions he’s comfortable playing, along with wing, center and hooker. Also sitting in are Kevon Williams and, wait for it, Carlin Isles.
“No one sees the work Maka has done in the background to get where he’s got to, and getting that kind of confidence within himself that he can play at halfback or he can play in the forwards,” said Friday. “Likewise with Kevon, he’s been doing it, but now he’s got to do it. The next one is to have Carlin to have that control to play at halfback, and not be frenetic, and just let it unfold for him. They’re all different types of halfback, but they are all reliant on one thing, and that’s Folau organizing the middle of the field.”
Niua is the team’s rock. He is the top restart kicker in the world, and he and Hughes have usually made up a crack conversion tandem. He’s also 33-years-old, and he’s going to have to log a lot of minutes in close games. That’s partially why Cody Melphy has been named to the side less than two weeks since arriving at base camp in Chula Vista, Calif. following basic training – he’s the latest to join the Army's World Class Athlete Program.
Melphy can kick restarts off both feet, play both halfback positions and even fill in at hooker and center if need be. But given he’s going to be rusty, don’t expect to see much of him in competitive games unless Niua is hurt. Chris Mattina, the 13th man, can also fill in at the halfback positions.
If Niua does go down, which is Friday’s current nightmare, the restart game will suffer, and it’s the USA’s biggest team strength.
“We are the world’s best. Statistically that shows, and everybody fears us in that part of our game, but it’s also when you look at the stats, we’ve got one of the most deadliest attacks, as well, so we’re not bothered as long as we’ve got the ball,” said Friday.
“We’re more than capable of getting the ball back defensively. There’s a lot of teams if you kick it deep to them, they’ll kick it back to you and kick it out, so there’s a tactical game to be played here, especially on a narrow pitch in Vegas, where a lot of teams don’t like to play in their 22.”
Still, the Eagles are good. They have the reigning player of the year in Perry Baker, as well as Barrett and Pinkelman, who could start for any team in the world, the underrated Niua, and several other really good pieces. When they’re on song, they’re scary. When they’re off, they can lose to anybody, evidenced by a winless Dubai to start the season. Which American team runs out of the tunnel Friday is anyone’s guess, but if it’s the good one, the Sin City semifinal ceiling might shatter.
“The long and the sort of it is no one wants to play us, and we know that if we apply ourselves and put ourselves where we need to, we are more than capable of beating anybody. But we’ve just got to make sure we take those moments and make sure those moments don’t overwhelm us. That’s just sort of the beast we have with our team – we can be box office, but we can then let ourselves down as well by not making the most of the moments we often give ourselves.”