Friday, May 19, 2017

Preview: Eagles Finish The Season In London

The Eagles will close out their 2016-17 Sevens Series season this weekend with the London 7s. They are pretty much cemented in fifth place. Technically they can catch New Zealand or be caught by Australia, both of which are 13 points ahead or behind the Eagles, but realistically the U.S. are set for fifth. That would be the highest ever finish for the team on the Series and quite an accomplishment for a team that has had to do some rebuilding this year and was sluggish out of the gates. They turned that around with four straight trips to the semi-finals, something that was only broken last weekend in Paris where they fittingly finished fifth.

Like with every team there are expected to be some changes to the Eagles in the offseason. Andrew Durutalo is moving to Ealing and there could be some other moves as well. Players like Carlin Isles could also return from health giving the team another dimension next season. However, before they even get to that point the team has a goal they still need to accomplish--winning a stop. London seems the place to do it as it's the site of the Eagles only Series victory in history. They've come close this year, in particular in Singapore where they fell to Canada but for whatever reason (mostly South Africa) they haven't been able to get over the hump this season.

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So what has to happen for them to get over that hump? There are some small things here and there like making sure they have good decision making and to improve their defense, but mostly they just have to keep on doing what they have done all season and hope for some breaks in tight matches. They face a difficult road with a tough pool but they have consistently shown that they have been able to make it out of those situations this year and can play wide open on day two.

The Team

The team is unchanged for the Paris squad. Naima Fualaau could make his way into the team or he could stay the 13th man. It was clear in Paris that they miss Danny Barrett but they also got good contributions from a number of other players.  It's possible that head coach Mike Friday may choose to give role players more experience this week but we think that happens only if the regulars look tired.

Squad: Alex Schwarz, Ben Pinkelman, Don Pati, Matai Leuta, Mike Te'o, Andrew Durutalo, Folau Niua, Maka Unufe, Steve Tomasin, Madison Hughes, Perry Baker, Martin Iosefo, Naima Fualaau

The Opponents

Wales (5:58 a.m./2:58 a.m. pt): The Eagles have faced Wales in the last two tournaments and have come out with big wins in each. The common theme is the lack of defense from Wales as the Eagles have been able to put up 35 and 38 points respectively. Wales have been able to score a couple of tries in each match but the U.S. restarts have been the key. Look for this trend to continue as the Eagles get out to a solid start. They will want to avoid the sluggish start they had against Wales last week. 

Kenya (9:04 a.m. et/6:04 a.m. pt): Kenya and the U.S. have only met two times this year and each match has been close. The U.S. won 21-19 in the Challenge Trophy semi-finals in Dubai and then Kenya won 19-12 at the same stage in Wellington. The stop in New Zealand was the high point of the season for the Kenyans who have struggled mightily since then. They finished tied for last in Paris. If Kenya fail to show up and the Eagles play their game they could qualify for the quarterfinals before having to take on South Africa. 

South Africa (12:32 p.m. et/9:32 a.m. pt): The U.S. and South Africa have developed quite a rivalry this year capped off with three straight semi-final matches. Unfortunately for the Eagles they've come out on the losing end of each of those matches. However, every single one of them was by less than a try. The two teams also met in the quarterfinals in Sydney and in pool play in Dubai and Cape Town.  It's been the small things that have separated South Africa from the Eagles this year but with South Africa having already won the Series maybe they might mentally relax in this match. 

The Takeaway

Regardless of what happens in London the Eagles have had a great season. They went through the post-Olympic lull and have emerged with a strong team. The only downside to the whole year has been the lack of developmental tournaments for some of their bench and emerging players. That said, the core group of players that has been at every tournament is strong and can beat anyone on any given day. It might be difficult to win the London 7s title but we expect the U.S. to make the top eight once again to finish out the season strong. 

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