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They produced a far more improved scoreline against Tonga, but will look at the game less as one that showed forward steps, and more as one that slipped away.

They were leading 13-5 in the second half and on the road to victory, but they then took a wrong turn onto a fog-shrouded dirt road, and lost.

Experienced players did uncharacteristic things – dropped balls when no one was near them, needless penalties, and abandoning a pattern of play that was working.

But there were still positives. The Eagles proved they were right there with the #12 team in the world, and for 60 minutes they were the better squad. Sixty isn’t 80, of course.

“After 2 ½ minutes things weren’t looking so good,” said USA Head Coach Mike Tolkin, referring to Tonga’s opening try – their only points for the next 55 minutes or so. “But after that our defense settled down and we definitely improved in that we were able to play in their territory. Obviously we need to come out of those times in the green zone with more points. But we were in a position to win it late, and that’s a positive.”

They didn’t win it, and Tolkin named three key factors as to why:
1. Their failure to take advantage of being a man up due to a yellow card early in the second half.

2. They lost their shape on attack.

3. Fundamental errors, such as Lou Stanfill dropping a restart that put Tonga on the front foot, and Chris Biller dropping a ball while under almost no pressure, and the USA forming an attack.

In a way, though, it all comes down to a loss of composure. In the middle portion of the game, the USA was doing relatively well kicking for territory, their scrum was holding on OK, their lineout was excellent, and they were mixing up their attack with different looks in the backs and a ferocious pick-and-go game.

Then they abandoned all that to playing a more predictable style that recycled ball, but go no go-forward.

“We were doing a good job of getting the ball behind them with the kicking game and the pick-and-go’s,” said Tolkin. “And then we lost our shape a little bit. Tonga started coming up a little faster, but we needed to adjust.”

The Eagles definitely missed Chris Wyles at this point, as his veteran leadership in the backs, and his poise, would have probably changed some things. Still, if Todd Clever had scored on that lineout steal, perhaps it’s a different result.

But win or lose, the USA Men’s National Team has to play their best for longer.

“We need to go into every game with that belief,” said Tolkin. “We need to expect to win games, and then put those games away. Right now we’re playing pretty well for 60 minutes, and those last 20 not so well. Even if we move that to 70 minutes, we can close out games. This game was a qualified step forward. We showed we can compete against a team like Tonga, but we needed to be able to put them away, and we didn’t.”