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Sunday, Team USA finished second in Cape Town, winning its second silver medal in as many tournaments to move into first-place in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings for the first time ever. 20-percent of the way through the season, the Eagles are in pole position to finish in the top four and punch their ticket to Tokyo 2020 as a high seed.
Let’s go back a few months. The Eagles just got bounced from the World Cup on home soil after only two games. The expected opening-round win over Wales was unfulfilling, and the quarterfinal loss to England was disappointing at best and devastating at worst.
The result put fans in an emotional time machine headed for Rio 2016, where the men failed to make the quarterfinals in their Olympic return. On both occasions, years of pent up anticipation and excitement for what were billed as game-changing opportunities went not just unrewarded but punished.
USA fans had been dreaming about Rio since the Olympic announcement in 2009. I can still conjure the image of USA Rugby employees celebrating the news in New York in my mind’s eye. Mark Bokhoven was a current player then, and he had his arm draped around Sara Wright, then Sara John, the communications maestro. Looks of genuine joy.
Now, we all thought, with rugby in the Olympics, everyday Americans will finally take notice. The sentiment was similar in 2015, when it was announced the USA would host its first-ever World Cup. Surely a World Cup, we all thought, would do the trick, like it did for Soccer in the ‘90s. If the USA could find a way onto the podium at either event, the team would become America’s darling.
With both in the rearview, though, the most indelible image from Rio is probably that of Matthew McConaughey watching from the sideline, and our souvenir from the RWC Sevens is crippling debt babysat by World Rugby’s Gus Pichot from a seat on USA Rugby’s board.
Couple the disappointment of consecutive early exits with the third sixth-place finish in four years, and doubt was starting to settle in. Yeah, Mike Friday may have taken us from 13th to 6th, but had he hit his ceiling?
Really, the second-guessing started long before that. I remember hearing the first negative sentiment about Friday from someone I respect in American rugby’s inner circle before Rio.
Every coach has detractors, especially national team coaches. In American rugby, there are very few pure fans. Most are also coaches, players or administrators, too. Coaches want to coach the national team, and players want to play on it, so it’s common for coaches who want the job to tear down the guy who currently has it, or for players who haven’t been selected to do the same.
But last season, the complaining crept above a comfortable volume. How could the team lose five games in the season opener in Dubai? Why doesn’t Friday work more intimately with club coaches? Why isn’t he scouting at every tournament? Why aren’t we getting any better? Has he lost the locker room?
The departure of long-time assistant coach Chris Brown didn’t help. Like people debate whether the lion’s share of credit belongs to Belichick or Brady, they were now wondering aloud if Brown, not Friday, really was the man behind the magic.
No longer were some of the most influential coaches in America simply questioning Friday, many had reached the conclusion he probably needed to move on. To make matters worse, word of soon-to-be two-time World Rugby 7s Player of the Year Perry Baker being shopped around for a 15s contract was being spread far and wide.
Let’s go back even further, a handful of years this time. The 2011/2012 season was altogether unremarkable, save for the coaching change that happened in the middle of it. Longtime head coach Al Caravelli was forced to retire after the Eagles mustered just one win in Las Vegas having gone winless the tournament before.
Enter Alex Magleby, who leads the team to its most competitive season to date in 2012/2013, in which the Eagles reached the quarterfinals at five of eight tournaments, more than doubling the previous high mark of two. Just making the top eight, or if you didn’t, at least going home with a trophy for finishing ninth or 13th, was the key performance indicator.
Despite ‘12/13 being a banner year, the Eagles won just two more matches than the previous season in which Caravelli was let go. They finished in the same spot in the standings, too – 11th.
With Magleby moving from the sideline to the front office, Matt Hawkins transitioned from captain to coach for ‘13/14. That season was seen as an unmitigated disaster, as the team flirted with relegation, which could have triggered massive funding issues, and ultimately ended 13th. Hawkins was jettisoned quickly after, though the team had won just two less games than the year prior.
The difference between the USA’s best season ever and two of its worst wasn’t very much.
Enter Mike Friday. The Eagles jumped from 13th to sixth his first year, claiming their first winning season on the World Series since 2000/2001, when they participated in just three tournaments. They broke the quarterfinal record from Magleby’s year, reaching six. They’ve eclipsed that mark every year since.
Before Friday, the Eagles had enjoyed one winning season in 15. Under him, they’ve enjoyed five in a row. Before Friday, the Eagles reached 16 quarterfinals in 81 tournaments. Under him, they’ve reached 31 quarterfinals in 41 tournaments.
Gold, silver and bronze medals weren’t awarded until a few years ago, but if you include all the top three finishes in World Series history, the Eagles had earned zero gold medals before Friday, one silver, and zero bronze, though they might have won bronze twice had third-place matches always been played. Under Friday, they’ve won two gold, three silver and three bronze.
To sum it up, Friday has coached just 33% of the Eagles’ games and tournaments, but he’s accounted for 44% of its wins, 66% of its quarterfinal appearances, 100% of its gold medals, 75% of its silver medals and 100% of its bronze medals.
If instead of claiming silver in Dubai and Cape Town, had the team gone winless and not reached the quarterfinals, Friday would still account for 43% of the USA’s all-time wins, 61% of quarterfinal appearances, 100% of the gold medals, 50% of the silver and 100% of bronze.
Let's come back to the present. Did Mike Friday, faced with the most tumultuous offseason of his tenure with the Eagles, roll up his sleeves and prove doubters wrong by ticking off another couple of firsts, racking up consecutive silver medals and a No. 1 ranking? Yes.
The point is, though, he shouldn’t have had to, and even if the team had gotten off to a significantly worse start to the season, there would still be no argument for looking for greener grass.
Instead of parceling credit for the men’s team’s turnaround over the last five seasons, or finding issues where there are none, Eagle fans and American rugby stakeholders should be equal parts grateful and excited that Mike Friday is the head coach of the men’s national team, and that his protégé, Chris Brown, is the head coach of the women’s team. For the first time ever, both have the horses and jockeys necessary to win Olympic gold.
This isn’t the time for doubt. It’s the time to go all-in. Buy the shirseys from the players association shop on Amazon. Pop for the ESPN+ subscription to watch the rest of the World Series. Share the highlights on social media. Tweet SportsCenter to get Danny Barrett in the Top 10. Buy tickets to Las Vegas and Vancouver. Buy tickets to Tokyo. If we miss out on the top four and have to go to the North American qualifier, buy tickets to that, too.
It’s taken time for Danny Barrett, who didn’t always start consistently for Cal and San Francisco Golden Gate in 7s, to become a dominating force that can go 14 minutes. It’s taken time for Perry Baker to go from freak athlete with a rugby background to the best player in the world. It’s taken time for Friday and Brown to turn Matai Leuta from an overweight NSCRO player into a physical marvel. It's taken time for Martin Iosefo to mature from a talented, sometimes irratic young player into a class danger man.
America’s golden generation is coming of age, and it’s in good hands. Enjoy it.