Friday, March 21, 2014

Preview: U.S. Out For Strong Start Against Uruguay

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As part of our lead-up to the start of the U.S.-Uruguay World Cup qualifying series this weekend we're bringing you an article on the Eagles everyday. This coverage is brought to you by Grubber, who are now offering their "50 States" shirt. You can get $5 off through this Saturday with the code: 50STATES

The upcoming World Cup qualifying series will last two matches but the Eagles are hoping that they can effectively end things tomorrow with a big result in Montevideo. The odds are stacked in the Eagles favor. They have been the better side when the last two have met in the last several years and they are bringing their near strongest line-up into the fixture. Anything can happen in the series but if the U.S. can put up a significant score while hold Uruguay, they have to fancy their chances of finishing off Uruguay in front of their home fans in Atlanta. If they can do that they will qualify for their fifth straight World Cup.

Take the jump to read more on the squad, analysis of Uruguay, keys to the match, key match-ups, and more.
The Team

By and large head coach Mike Tolkin has selected the players you would expect with a few exceptions. Beginning in the halfbacks Tolkin has elected to go with Mike Petri and Toby L'Estrange. Petri wins the scrumhalf job over Robbie Shaw and Shalom Suniula. L'Estrange gets the nod at fly-half due to Adam Siddall's injury. L'Estrange has been playing the position for London Welsh the last few weeks and did play well against the Maori All Blacks before getting hurt. Both Petri and L'Estrange are familiar with each other having played together at NYAC. However, they will have questions of them asked on Saturday. Neither has been particularly strong over the last year. L'Estrange has often been criticized for his ability to find the correct pass. Petri's kicking has been a sore subject and he will face a very solid opposition in the Uruguayan scrumhalf.

The two relatively unexpected chances to the predicted squad include Olive Kilifi coming in at prop and Hayden Smith pairing with Samu Manoa at lock. With Shawn Pittman hurt one of Kilifi, Titi Lamositele, and Nick Wallace were going to start. Wallace played well in the Fall but Tolkin has had a good opportunity to watch Kilifi over the last few months in Eagles camp. He may feel that he is the best scrummager of the bunch, which is what the team needs against Uruguay. Eric Fry will be the other prop while Phil Thiel resumes his hooking duties.

Smith was a starter at the World Cup but then took a break from rugby. Still, he shouldn't have any problem forming a devastating pairing with Manoa. Todd Clever, Scott LaValla, and Cam Dolan return as the back-row. All in all, this is one of the best forward packs the U.S. has seen in a long time and should handle Uruguay.

The backs remain much the same as they have throughout the last year. Chris Wyles is the lynchpin at fullback. The kicking duties will likely fall his way which adds a little more pressure. Still, he has been the team's most consistent player over the last few years and has handled the kicking duties before. On the wings are Tim Maupin and Blaine Scully, a solid pair. Andrew Suniula and Folau Niua will be in the centers. The backs are the weakest element for Uruguay so look for the U.S. to exploit them.

Forwards: Olive Kilifi, Phil Thiel, Eric Fry, Hayden Smith, Samu Manoa, Todd Clever, Scott LaValla, Cam Dolan

Backs: Mike Petri, Toby L'Estrange, Tim Maupin, Andrew Suniula, Folau Niua, Blaine Scully, Chris Wyles

Bench: Tom Coolican, Nick Wallace, Titi Lamositele, Lou Stanfill, Kyle Sumsion, Shalom Suniula, Seamus Kelly, Luke Hume

Not dressed: Miles Craigwell, Tai Tuisamoa, Robbie Shaw

The Opponents

Of the 23 players on Uruguay's roster, only five play out of the country. Of those five only one, scrumhalf Agustin Ormaechea (Mont-de-Marsan), plays in a fully professional league. He will be the player to watch for Uruguay and a big challenge for Petri. Other players to watch include Jeronimo Etcheverry and Alejo Corral. Etcheverry is a back that plays for Valpolicella in Italy. He also is expected to handle the kicking duties for the team. Corral is a tough prop that plays with San Isidro in Italy. Uruguay is missing their top player, Castre's Rodigo Capo Ortega, who is back in France after the birth of his child.

The rest of the squad is comprised of players from the domestic league in Uruguay. The core of the team has been together for quite awhile now but they still haven't seen a lot of success. Aside from wins over fellow South American opponents (minus Argentina) they have had a mixed record against fellow Tier III teams and a poor record against Tier I development and Tier II sides.

Keys to the Match

Execution: On paper the U.S. should dominate this game. The forward pack can handle anything Uruguay can throw at them and more while the backs have many more weapons. However, the U.S. can't take anything for granted. They need to make sure they still give the match their full effort. One errant pass can lead to a Uruguay try and a loss of momentum. The last thing you want to do is let Uruguay feel like they have a chance.

Strong Start: If the U.S. can get a try within the first 10 minutes and then take a 10-15 point cushion into the half they could potentially demoralize Uruguay.

Keep the Pace: Uruguay may feel like the only thing they can do to keep up with the Eagles is to slow down the game with scrums, lineouts, and shots at goal. The U.S. needs to punish Uruguay. That means turning scrums, stealing lineouts, and staying away from penalties.

Finishing: One of the Eagles big problems over the last year has been the inability to punch in a try five meters from the line. Instead they turnover the ball and lose precious points. They have to put those chances away tomorrow.

Kicking: Penalties could be big in this match. Without Siddall there isn't a clear go-to kicker. Wyles will take the duties and has done well but it is a small element of worry.

Cohesion: November isn't that far in the past but it is still difficult for many of these players to get out of club mode and to focus on Eagles duty. The challenge will be compounded by traveling to Uruguay. Sticking to the basics and trying not to do too much at first will be key.

Key Match-ups

Mike Petri vs. Agustin Ormaechea: This may be the only position in which Uruguay has an advantage. Ormaechea is a known player with a solid professional pedigree. Petri also has a solid pedigree but his play over the last year has not been as solid as needed. Petri will need to be at the top of his game.

Jeronimo Etcheverry vs. Chris Wyles: The advantage in this match-up belongs to Wyles both in offensive and defensive ability. The showdown between these two players could come down to who is the better kicker.

Alejo Corral and partner vs. Olive Kilifi and Eric Fry: The success of the Eagles will hinge on whether Kilifi and Fry can hold their own in the scrum. Corral is solid and will put both to the test.

The Takeaway

If the Eagles come away from Montevideo with anything less than a win it would be a major shock. This is one of the most complete U.S. teams in recent memory--if ever--while Uruguay are on a bit of a down slope. The question shouldn't be if the U.S. will win but by how much. It wouldn't shock us to see the U.S. put up 40 past Uruguay while limited them to a couple of penalties and maybe a try. A lot of that depends on the referee (the U.S. hasn't been the best at managing the man in the middle) but that should be the goal. If the U.S. wants to have a chance to play higher ranked opponents they need to prove that this match is a mere formality.

Also, they shouldn't lose sight of the fact that this is for a chance in the World Cup. Every player wants to play in the World Cup but you only get on the roster by proving it in qualifying and in tests. These players are not only playing for a win on Saturday but the opportunity to start in 2015. With that in mind, expect the team to come out firing.

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