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It's an exciting time to be on the United States Men's National Team. The
Eagles just qualified for the World Cup, they're now pretty consistently
playing in front of full(ish) stadiums on home soil, the All Blacks have
signed on for an historic match at Chicago's Soldier Field, and the team's
staring down the barrel at three winnable games against teams ranked higher
than them (USA 18th, Scotland 10th, Japan 13th and Canada 15th).
The United States has never beaten Scotland, and the Eagles are riding three- and seven-game losing streaks to Japan and Canada, respectively, but there's reason for hope against all three June opponents.
Up first is Scotland June 7 at BBVA Compass Stadium in Houston. Fresh off a 1-5 finish in the Six Nations, the only two teams the Scottish have beaten the last 12 months are Japan and Italy. No pundits seem to be too high on Scotland at the moment, and national attention is focused more on the Glasgow Warriors' debut in the RaboDirect Pro 12 final than on the USA test a week later.
Scotland named nine Warriors to the 27-man traveling squad headed for Houston. Another two, Kelly Brown and Duncan Taylor, may be distracted by back-to-back championship weekends coming up for Saracens.
On the flip side, the Americans have just Samu Manoa (Northampton) and Chris Wyles (Saracens) who need worry about championship club rugby between now and the Scotland test, as Cam Dolan (Northampton), Hayden Smith (Saracens), and Folau Niua (Glasgow) are longshots to make the squads for their teams' respective championship games.
"The way we look at the program is if we play up to our standard, we can beat very good teams. Scotland obviously may be having some trouble, but they're a Six Nations team, they're a top 10 team, they're very good, so it will be a challenge, even though they've had their troubles," said USA head coach Mike Tolkin.
"But we feel on the day, if we're clicking on all ends and converting our opportunities, we can beat very good teams. We're looking at it more of what we can do, and if we get things right, that's what we're capable of."
Up next is Japan June 14 in suburban Los Angeles. The Eagles haven't beaten the Japanese since 2003, though they've only met three times since then. However, the USA is 12-6-1 against Japan all time.
Then it's Canada June 21 in Sacramento. The USA is 0-7 against Canada since the last win in 2009, but three of the last four rivalry games have been decided by a converted try or less, and, frankly, the Eagles are due for a win. The current seven-game losing streak against Canada is tied for the longest in the all-time series.
So the Eagles are capable of going 3-0 in June, which would be an uplifting feat sure to capture momentum heading into the titan task of beating the All Blacks Nov. 1. But they're also very capable of going 0-3, like they did last June.
"I know fans and writers and people are going to say, 'This team's beatable because of this, this team's beatable because of that,' and that may be true, but they're lose-able [games]. These are all teams that are ahead of us in the rankings and they're ahead of us for a reason," said Tolkin.
"This is not an issue or a problem, it's just the way it is, but sometimes people want something to happen, so therefore they think it has to happen. They want us to beat Scotland. They see it as they're not going well, you should beat them. But it's not always that easy. We know it's an opportunity. We know if we do the job like we did against the Maori, we can make things happen and win those games. But it's not going to be easy."
Then there's the game everyone's talking about.
"Sometimes you're at the right place at the right time, and we want to be the people who make the most out of the situation. We have everything to gain," said Tolkin of the All Blacks game.
"It should be a real positive approach, which it will be, in terms of a great rugby event, a real positive rugby event in America, a chance to start on a regular basis playing the best, and that's how we see it."
Positivity, says Tolkin, isn't lacking in the team right now. The summer of 2013 was an abysmal one in terms of results, but the promising Moari game and wins over Georgia and Russia in the fall, along with qualifying for the World Cup, have the team in a confident state.
"We never went into a negative vibe after the fall. Last summer definitely ended on a sour note, with the summer games and the qualifiers, but the autumn with the ARC and the autumn tour we definitely rebounded our frame of mind," said Tolkin.
"Uruguay, that series, frustrating that we didn't convert a lot of opportunities. A lot of the things we wanted we had in place; we had territory, we had possession, we had two-to-one rucks, three-to-one rucks advantage, a lot of opportunities in their 22, so we had a lot of the pieces in place. Our defense was tight. They didn't earn scores, tries.
"The one thing we needed to work on was just green zone, in their 22, had
opportunities, made wrong choices. So we looked at our game management, and
we know it's something that we can fix. The guys know that, so we're in a
good frame of mind. We just have to make sure that we're clicking in the
green zone and our decision making."