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Having reached eight consecutive Cup Quarterfinals and 12 in the last 13 tournaments, Team USA is now expected to be a contender every time out. But, since claiming their first-ever tournament title in London last year, the Eagles haven’t reached a final this season. In six competitions they’ve been bounced in the quarterfinals four times and the semifinals twice.
The pieces are in place for the United States to break through that barrier in Hong Kong this weekend. Big-time players are back, the pool sets up nicely, and maybe most importantly, there’s a path to avoid feared Fiji until the final.
The Fijians have eliminated the Eagles from Cup contention in each of the last two tournaments. In Vancouver, Team USA lost an epic Cup Quarterfinal tussle 31-26. A week prior in Las Vegas, the Eagles fell 21-14 to Fiji in the Cup Semifinals. Both games were there for the taking, and in both instances some yellow cards weren’t issued to Fiji, potentially altering the end result.
In Hong Kong, the USA won’t see Fiji until the semifinals, at least. Fiji is in an easy Pool D alongside Wales, Canada and Korea. Should be smooth sailing to 3-0. If chalk holds there, and the USA can win Pool C, the Eagles wouldn’t meet Fiji until the title match. They’d likely draw England or Scotland in the Cup Quarterfinals and New Zealand in the semifinals – that’s barring any major upsets of the All Blacks.
The USA’s pool includes Australia, Argentina and Portugal. So far this season, the Eagles are 2-0 against Portugal and 0-2 against Australia. They’ve not yet played Argentina. They should beat Portugal without issue, and they are capable of winning or losing against both Argentina and Australia. Interestingly, both the USA and Australia are vying for their ninth-straight Cup Quarterfinal appearances.
Should the Eagles finish second in Pool C, they’ll likely see South Africa in the Cup Quarterfinals. If they survive, it’d probably be Fiji waiting for them in the semis.
Boding well for the USA is the return of Maka Unufe and Zack Test. Test, the USA’s all-time try leader and still probably the team’s all-around best player, missed Vancouver with a concussion. Even without him the Eagles went well in Canada.
Should Unufe make it through the whole tournament, it will be his first full competition since Cape Town way back in December. He missed Wellington and Sydney due to family commitments and suffered a shoulder injury early on in Las Vegas, ending that tournament abruptly and keeping him off Vancouver’s roster.
If Unufe stays healthy throughout the weekend, it will mark the first full tournament Mike Friday’s had his preferred center pairing all season, as midfield mate Martin Iosefo and Unufe have only been in the same squad once, in Las Vegas, where Unufe went down early. In Vancouver, Iosefo was lights out, but he was visibly fatigued on day two, having had to make a lot happen on his own. Some continuity and depth at center could go a long way in helping the Eagles break through to another final appearance.
The only player missing is Carlin Isles, who was replaced last-minute by Nate Ebner. It’s unconfirmed, but Isles was presumably unavailable due to injury. The speedster has mainly filled a reserve role most of the season, and the Eagles performed well in his absence in Vancouver. Perry Baker is conditioned enough, it seemed in Canada, to carry a significant amount of the load at wing. So if Friday had to pick a player to be out for Hong Kong, he may well have picked Isles anyway.
The USA has a good squad, a winnable pool, and as favorable a path to the final as you can hope for on the World Series. The Eagles could well be poised to hoist their second Cup title in history, and historic Hong Kong 7s would be a picturesque setting for the celebration.