PHILADELPHIA, PA – Last season saw the USA Men’s 7s team moving into new territory. They finished 6th for the series, won a tournament, and qualified for the 2016 Olympics. That is all good stuff. The jump from the 13th place finish from the 2013/2014 season up to 6th might have been surprising to some, but Mike Friday knew that there was strong potential in the squad when he took over. That potential was fully realized with the Cup victory in London.
Here is what you need to know heading into the 2015-2016 season.
- Dubai: December 4-5
- Cape Town: December 12-13
- Wellington: January 30-31
- Sydney: February 6-7
- Las Vegas: March 4-6
- Vancouver: March 12-13
- Hong Kong: April 8-10
- Singapore: April 16-17
- Paris: May 14-15
- London: May 20-22
- Rio Olympics: August 6-11
While last season was the best in USA Men’s 7s history, the progress from tournament to tournament was not necessarily a steady incline.
Losing to Kenya in the first match in Japan hurt, for instance, but getting blanked by Canada 40-0 in Glasgow was worse. Fortunately, there was the chance to settle the score versus Canada at the NACRA 7s which was also the Olympic qualifying tournament.
Qualifying for Rio was not a given heading into the season. The form shown over the course of the season showed that the USA Men’s 7s was clearly a stronger side than Canada. Winning the NACRA 7s underlined that. However, at the Pan Am Games, it was Canada who beat the USA in a semi-final match and then Argentina for the Gold. The USA had to settle for Bronze.
Much of the progress made last year is credited to Mike Friday. Friday is a man who combines humility with competence. He is invested in his players and their well-being as humans as well as their success on the field. Those players, generally, improved last year.
What to Expect This Season
The USA are likely to produce more of last year’s form this year, with a step up. That step up should be fun to watch and see the USA finish in the top 8 for the series.
Results during the series are not as important as the preparation for Rio. A tournament that leads to squad improvement might not end up with the best short-term outcome. On the other hand, the USA Men’s 7s team needs to consistently beat those teams they finished ahead of last year so that they can test themselves against the best on the final day of the series’ tournaments. In Dubai, that means beating France and Portugal on Day 1.
When the USA struggled last year, it was from silly mistakes and not winning 1-on-1 physical battles. From afar, it seemed like there were simply moments when the team wasn’t fully there mentally. Given that most of the key players are returning this season, one can hope those moments are fewer and further between. The USA are best when they are able to first be physical and then be fast.
In the 10 tournaments in the expanded HSBC 7s Series – well, expanded for the men – the USA Men’s 7s squad should get to 7 cup quarter finals. (To get to the cup quarter final, a team needs to finish top 2 in a group of 4.) Given the victory in London last spring, another tournament win is essentially necessary to keep a sense of momentum. As much as the dream of a medal at Rio is nice, it is a looong shot as of now.
Not everyone can get a mention, but here are some notes on the squad:
While Friday doesn’t like to talk about individual stars, Maka Unufe might become a star this season. If the USA is going to be a realistic medal contender, they’ll need Unufe to be strong – physically and mentally. His punch during a match against Canada at the Halloween 7s was an ugly moment and deserved the red card he received. We can’t go too far without mentioning, of course, Carlin Isles and Perry Baker. Baker did not play his best at the Halloween 7s, but, man, Isles looked good. This season, they should be locks for every tournament.
Friday is working with the pool of residency athletes at Chula Vista (full list below), as well as “remote” players who are being kept in mind. For instance, Kevin Swiryn is not a residency athlete. He has experience, but none since 2010. He was not the most exciting player at the Halloween 7s, but he was solid.
Friday has stated clearly and often that he is looking for players who show the right attitude. That means looking at how they go about their business on the pitch and in the gym, and that they play for the team first, not themselves. Friday is not just looking for an explosive or exciting player; he is looking for players who do what they are supposed to all the time and then are explosive when given the chance. Swiryn must have impressed with his attitude.
Will Holder is another player who has the mental aspects of the game developed. Ben Pinkelman is likely to get some chances later in the season. It isn’t clear if he is ready for the series, though he clearly has lots of talent to work with.
The loss of Andrew Durutalo should actually be okay during the series. He showed last year that he could make good decisions as well as doing clean-up work around the pitch. However, there are other players who can grow into that role and might even be better defensively. And my money is on him returning to the 7s camp prior to the Olympics to try and earn his individual ticket to Rio.
Matai Leuta is a big man who might help fill the Durutalo hole. He has the capacity to draw in defenders while keeping his hands free to off load. By my count, he played in 3 tournaments last season (Japan, Glasgow, and London). His “profile” on the USA Rugby website has his birthday. That’s is. He has the chance, though, to play his way into the Olympic squad.
The rest of the player pool offers good depth and a variety of similar yet complementing skill sets. It should be a good season for American fans.
Will Holder – U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program
Ben Leatigaga – U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program
Mattie Tago – U.S. Army World-Class Athlete Program
Team for Dubai
Madison Hughes (C)
Non-Residency Athletes at Last High Performance Camp
Colton Cariaga – Life University
Ben Pinkelman – Colorado State University
ConRoy Smith – Northern Virginia Rugby Football Club
Punnarah Sok – Columbus Rugby Club
Kevin Swiryn – Seattle Saracens
Peter Tiberio – Seattle Saracens
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