The Vegas 7s marks the halfway point of the Sevens Series. As things stand the U.S. are currently right in the middle of the pack in eighth placer tied with Argentina and France. That's not where the U.S. want to be but considering that they, like most of the other teams on the Series, are in the exploratory phase of their Olympic cycle it's not entirely unexpected. Still, the coaching staff won't be satisfied but will have to take heart that the Eagles had their best showing to date in Sydney where they finished in sixth place. They will be hoping to build on that in Vegas.
Vegas can sometimes be a funny tournament for the Eagles. They have had some of their best showings there but at the same time have laid a few eggs. Recently it's been a better tournament for them as they've been able to feed off the home crowd. Also, the short travel has helped as well. Traveling back from New Zealand hasn't always worked for them but last year it seemed to be okay. Last year they finished in fourth. That is certainly possible this year but they need to get off to a quick start.
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Head coach Mike Friday has made a few changes to his team. The biggest changes have Ben Pinkelman and Maka Unufe returning from injury. The loss of those two players early in the season has been a big loss. Pinkelman became an indispensable part of the team at the end of last year and moving into the Olympics. It may take him some adjustment to getting back into top 7s form but if it's a quick transition the Eagles are only going to benefit. The same goes for Maka Unufe. We've often said that when Unufe is playing his best the Eagles are very tough to beat.
The rest of the team consists of the main core that have been around the last few years as well as some players that have been in and out. Pat Blair is one of those players who is looking to make a new impact. Steve Tomasin played well in Sydney and needs to follow that up with another good performance. The only debutant is Walt Elder.
Squad: Pat Blair, Ben Pinkelman, Danny Barrett, Matai Leuta, Walt Elder, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Steve Tomasin, Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Martin Iosefo
Samoa (8:37 p.m. et/5:37 p.m. pt): Samoa have struggled this year as they attempt to rebuild their program. In the four tournaments so far they have yet to make the top eight. As usual in Vegas they will have very vocal fans on their side but they need to find another gear. The U.S. has played Samoa twice this year. The first was a 28-14 win in the Challenge Trophy final in Dubai and the second was a 24-12 win in pool play in Wellington. Both results show the U.S. can put up points while also having a good defensive showing.
Chile (11:36 p.m. et/8:36 p.m. pt): Chile don't have a lot of experience on the Series and given how the U.S. were able to beat their 15s team handily last weekend this should be a blowout win for the Eagles. It's important that they put up a big score. One of the biggest lessons learned from the Olympics was that not being able to run up the score against Brazil cost them a spot in the top eight.
England (7:24 p.m. et/4:24 p.m. pt): England are going to be the most difficult team in the pool. The English are playing some good rugby at the moment and it's more than fitting that they are in second place. They have only improved since the Olympics but they haven't played the U.S. so far this year. That will give the U.S. some hope. England are all about possession and if the Eagles can keep them from the ball they will do something few others have done.
Keys to the Tournament
Focused Start: The Eagles have missed out on the quarterfinals in the first leg of back to back tournaments this year. They have made the quarterfinal at every second tournament. If the U.S. want to be more than a middle of the road team they need to make the quarterfinals in Vegas. They have a good shot if they can beat Samoa first up but they need to come out concentrating.
Possession: We talk about it every tournament but possession is everything in 7s. With Pinkelman back in the line-up the restart should gain a big boost but it's more about limited the small errors that lead to knock-ons and penalties.
Find Speed: Having Carlin Isles out due to injury is going to limit the Eagles options. The one-two punch of Isles and Perry Baker is extremely effective. When it is just one of them the opposing team has done a decent job of limiting what they can do.
Make Space: Similarly, getting Baker going is going to require the U.S. making something happen in the middle of the pitch. Danny Barrett was particularly good in Sydney at drawing in the defense and opening up space. Pinkelman should help this week but Barrett needs another big week.
Now halfway through the year the Eagles need to show what they are all about. Are they a yo-yo team making the quarterfinals one week and missing out the next or are they a team that can consistently challenge for not only a quarterfinal spot but a place in the top four? They have the tools to be one of the better teams on the Series but now is the time to step up and do it. We think, given their history recently in Vegas, that they are able to turn it on and make the quarterfinals. It will begin with a solid win over Samoa and then their quarterfinal spot will be assured when they beat Chile. However, that is just the beginning. How they do after they win their two expected matches is more important.