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Mike Friday’s charges get their season underway Friday in Dubai, where they’ll face Argentina first, Samoa second, and New Zealand third in pool play. The Eagles are coming off their best performance ever, finishing fifth for the first time ever, in last season’s standings.
With the World Cup coming up in July and Olympic qualification beginning next season, they’re in a race to get as good as possible as quickly as possible. For that reason, Friday selected a veteran group for Dubai. The lone World Series debutant in the squad is Joe Schroeder, who showed well in the Silicon Valley 7s earlier this month.
Given it’s a year where there are no Olympic consequences, Friday could have justified bringing on a greener bunch in an effort to stretch the player pool. Instead, he’s opted to put his best team on the field and try to create depth in other ways, such as having Chris Mattina and Kevon Williams playing in the Dubai International Invitation tournament while the Eagles are flying in the main event.
“We’re maintaining their progression and development, but it is very much a case of we have to build on our momentum. We have to set our standards and we need those that want to get in the 12 to rise to the top rather than get easy, cheap caps and get blooded,” Friday explained.
“Don’t get me wrong, we’re trying to grow the depth of the pool, but we’re doing that by finding them opportunities on the world circuit, in the tournaments underneath, Chris and Kevon being the prime example. We blooded five or six in Silicon Valley, we’re sending a very strong Falcons team to the CONSUR tournament in South America, so they’ve got opportunities to put their best foot forward to force their way into the 12.
“There’s no sacred cows within the 12, but at the same time, if you’ve earned the right to come, you’ve earned the right to come, whether it’s your first cap or you’ve got 50 caps. We’re building to the World Cup in our own country, on home soil, and we want to make sure that’s all ready, and the best 12 players than can represent the country, need to be represented.”
The man who took the opportunity (and then another, and another) to raise his hand was Schroeder. He played for the vaunted Royal Irish (IN) in high school before cheerleading in college. He spent time with the Tiger Academy in Ohio, and, after impressing at an incubator camp, got the call-up to play at Silicon Valley. He did well enough there to earn the nod for Dubai.
“He’s going to make mistakes, of course he is. Who doesn’t make mistakes on their debut? He’s very inexperienced, and there’s a lot of experienced boys eager to be playing again, some of whom have got 50, 60 tournaments under their belt,” said Friday of Schroeder.
“I think we have to put some perspective on Joe. He’s a big man, he’s very quick on his feet. He’s from a cheerleading background so he’s agile. His agility with the size he has, probably helped being in cheerleading, has allowed him to make this transfer. We’re excited to see where he goes. He’s a tall man, he’s a rangy man, but he’s also a real nuisance in the breakdown.”
Schroeder may not have to wait long to put those breakdown skills to use, as the Eagles start the season in an incredibly physical pool, their first game against a notoriously tenacious Argentina side.
“From second one, minute one at nine o’clock in the morning we need to be ready to go to war with tin hats on when we play a very resilient Argentinian team,” Friday said.
The Eagles swept Argentina last season, beating them on four occasions. Outside of the aberration, a 33-5 win in Hong Kong, the average margin of victory for the USA was just 2.3 points.
“We may have beaten them four times last season out of four, but I wouldn’t say any one of them was comfortable. Everything was fought for tooth and nail. Argentina are renowned as a pack of wolves. We won’t look past that first game, because if we don’t win that first game, it becomes a very tough uphill struggle,” Friday added.
The Eagles have learned the hard lesson of dropping a pool-opening loss to the Argentines before, when they lost at the death, 17-14, in their opening match in Rio. That defeat ended up costing them a shot at the medal rounds.
“We will play our normal game, and our game is a perfect balance of physicality, power and pace. We don’t need to go away from our DNA. We just need to make sure we are on point mentally, physically, that we are at our standards, and that we’re accurate both with ball in hand and when we’re defending.”
Dubai has traditionally been a tough nut to crack for the USA for a few reasons – it’s a 12-hour time difference, which, as Friday puts it, flips your meals on their head, they haven’t traditionally been able to afford to arrive early enough to mitigate that time zone difference, and it’s the first tournament of the season and the USA has struggled to play in warm-up tournaments other nations frequent.
This year, with the emergence of Silicon Valley, one problem was taken care of. And the team arrived in Dubai time to get over the time zone difference. Unfortunately, though, the Eagles aren’t where they need to be fitness wise.
“We’re massively undercooked, and the reason being we gave three months off at the end of the season. We did that on purpose, because in the four-year cycle, with what they’ve got coming up, this was the only time we could give them a proper down period to rest, recover, recuperate. We’re probably four, five weeks undercooked in terms of conditioning,” said Friday.
“Normally, if you look at the last three years, the only year we got to the semifinal where we probably should have got to the final was when we had proper preparation. We had adequate funds to arrive in time to get over the jetlag. Last year we couldn’t afford it, we had to fly in late. My first year we had to fly in late. The year leading into Rio we got to come in on Friday, and we were hot to trot from our conditioning perspective, and we delivered. This year we arrived on Saturday, so we’ve had suitable time to prepare, but we just know where we are in a conditioning perspective.”
All that means is a very experienced, contact-ready, well-rested, hungry Team USA is going to have to fight past some fitness issues to get through the tournament’s toughest pool.