Rainy Saturday in LA leaves USA Men’s Sevens in need of bounce back tournament in latter half of 2023 series

Mon, Feb 27, 2023, 8:45 PM
by Taylor Dean
Mike Lee - KLC Photos
Mike Lee - KLC Photos

The USA Men’s Sevens squad closed out their home tournament at HSBC Los Angeles Sevens in 13th place. Sitting in eighth with 69 points in overall standings, the team will have a fight to finish in place for early Olympic qualification.

The support from the home crowd was felt all weekend, even during a stormy Saturday that led to a historic two weather delays. The Dawgs had a slow start to their tournament, a crucial stop along the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series en route to Olympic qualification, and they couldn’t find their full steam in time to earn a spot in the quarterfinals. Despite finishing in 13th, the squad will take their learnings into Vancouver, where they will meet familiar faces in New Zealand, Samoa, and Spain.

Despite a disappointing finish, the home crowd remained supportive all weekend. Family and friends turned out to cheer on the squad, and the encouragement from the entire audience was felt all weekend.

Comments from Head Coach Mike Friday: “The frustrating thing is that we need to focus on doing the right things at the right time and thinking clearly in those moments, and not getting bored of doing the same thing if the same thing’s working. All those little fundamental details that we talked about in our attacking game and our defensive game, we need to maintain that discipline and do those things. We’re not a million miles away, but results this weekend shows that we are. But that’s the brutality of this World Sevens Series. We’ve taken a massive punch in the face, and we need to find a way to fight back into the World Series.”

Tournament Recap

The rainy conditions on Saturday did no favors to any teams, and keeping control of the ball and staying upright proved to be a challenge for everyone. The rain cleared out in time for the USA to take on their first pool match against Samoa. Malacchi Esdale earned the ball off the bat and put the USA on the front foot straight away, but momentum was lost, giving Samoa the opportunity to turnover and break away for the first try of the game. It was a rough, low-scoring first few minutes with scrappy play. Samoa’s trademark physicality put USA’s skills to the test, but the slippery conditions made it difficult to complete tackles.

A yellow card to David Still gave Samoa two power play tries, but the USA ended the first half with a statement try from Esdale. The second half started out strong,, with Kevon Williams skirting away after picking the ball from a scrum. Marcus Tupuola, playing in his hometown, spun out of an attempted tackle to earn more critical points for the USA. Samoa stayed relentless, and continued to find space and shake off USA tackles to earn more points and win the match, 26-19.

A storm delay due to lightning pushed back the Dawgs’ second game of the day. When the USA and New Zealand entered the pitch, the field was muddier than the morning, making it harder to keep traction. The All Blacks started out strong with the first points in the first minute of the game, but the USA responded quickly off a scrum and several recycles with a try by David Still on the wing. The All Blacks were resilient, though, and continued to turn over the ball and find ways to use the conditions to their advantage and continue looking comfortable on the ball.

The USA won a penalty at the start of the second half, giving them opportunity for a line out. Kevon Williams took the ball from the Dawgs’ textbook line out and fed it to Malacchi Esdale, who raced away for USA points. With the sun peeking out of the storm clouds, the home crowd’s support remained throughout the match, even as the squad struggled to find their footing. In possession at the final whistle, the USA were determined to end the match with a statement. Patient offloads helped the squad gain some ground, giving Naima Fua’alau the last try of the game. New Zealand took the win 36-15.

Another storm delay pushed the USA’s final pool match of the day, but the squad was more determined than ever to display their skills on the home turf. Chile kicked off the match, and patient but scrappy work from both sides gave Chile the first points on the board. Joe Schroeder immediately responded at the restart with a catch and run to put up USA points. At the end of the first half, a kick over the top by Marcus Tupuola gave Malacchi Esdale the ground to run over the try line again to tie the teams heading into the second half.

Tupuola scored the first try of the second half in the corner as rain started pouring down on cold field. Both teams played physically for the rest of the second half, with the USA trying to keep possession and Chile looking to get ahead. Chile found the ground to score one more try, but Gavan D’Amore used a dummy pass to slip by and score in the last seconds of the game, winning the match 20-17.

Mike Friday’s comments on pool play: “Yes, we went behind 21-0 in the Samoa game but we fought back by doing what needed to be done to get back to 21-17. In the moment, it’s about sticking to what works and doing that. I should’ve prepared them better to make sure they make the right decisions at key moments because that change in the plan enabled Samoa to ultimately kick on and win that game, which then put us in a bit of a hole for the rest of the day.

“We started valiantly against New Zealand, but ultimately we missed too many tackles, and they’re too good a team if you do miss those tackles. We managed to salvage our result against Chile, but the damage had been done and the cause of the day is ultimately downt o what happened in that Samoa game.”

Finishing third in pool play, the United States headed to the ninth place quarterfinals in a Sunday opener against Spain. A warmer and sunnier day two in Los Angeles put the squad in good spirits heading in. Spain earned the first try of the game, but USA stayed patient with the ball as they worked their way out of their own territory, giving Perry Baker the opportunity to sweep in and run along the side for USA points. Spain was able to respond swiftly throughout the match, fending off tacklers and finding their way into USA territory. A yellow card to Spain gave the Dawgs a power play, but a knock on ended the first half with no advantages.

A big battle for possession early in the second half led to a breakdown scramble, giving a red card to Spain. They kept up a good defensive wall as USA played to their advantage and a penalty gave them chance to kick to touch. Faitala Talapusi kept the ball inside, giving Perry Baker space again to run on the wing for a second try. The USA missed the conversion, and Spain kept possession for the rest of the game to win 14-12, sending the USA to the 13th place semifinals.

In their matchup against Kenya, the USA faced a physical and strong team, and Kenya’s prowess was on full display with points in the first minute of the game. Well aware that every point matters, the squad was determined to gain some ground. Kenya stayed physical on both sides, pushing away tackles and holding possession for most of the first half. A USA scrum fed the ball over to Malacchi Esdale for the first Eagles try of the match, but Kenya responded swiftly off a restart mistake to take the lead heading into half time.

A restart mistake from Kenya at the start of the second half gave a scrum to the USA, a favorite set piece for scoring tries, and the plan succeeded with an immediate try from Esdale. With momentum up for the Dawgs, the squad forced more penalties to earn a real attacking chance. The squad connected well and used their urgency to get Steve Tomasin over the try line for more USA points. It was the pick-me-up the Dawgs needed, as Tomasin kicked the ball and Faitala Talapusi picked for another try, helping the USA end up on top, 26-21, heading to the 13th place playoffs.

Following the Kenya game, Joe Schroeder was evaluated and determined to take a 12-day rest after injury during play.

In their final game on home soil, the USA met Japan in a battle for 13th place. The crowd was in full support mode for the tournament hosts, giving the right motivation to finish strong after a disappointing weekend. Right off the bat, David Still got the ball in his hands and jetted himself to the try zone within the first 20 seconds of the game, setting the Dawgs up strong. After the restart, Marcus Tupuola stole the ball back and ran straight to more USA points. The USA continued to pressure Japan and force errors to keep possession with a strong defensive wall. Japan struggled to find openings until the last minute of the first half and were able to get through to get points on the board. Perry Baker had the final say of the first half with a try of his own.

The USA kept their organization in the second half, and David Still reminded Japan his lethality with the ball by running down the line for more points. The squad continued to find space, and Adam Channel and Gavan D’Amore earned the final tries of the tournament to end the match 31-7, giving the USA 13th place. While it wasn’t the result the USA had hoped for, they were able to recoup and end the tournament on a dominant note.

“We didn’t play well enough in that Spain game. Our work ethic wasn’t where it needed to be. We were too lateral. We didn’t make our tackles, we didn’t work hard enough against them. It was early in the morning, but that was down to us. I take full responsibility, I didn’t prepare the boys enough to be where they needed to be to win that game. As a consequence, we were punched in the face and we were put into the bottom part of the whole day. Credit to the guys that then stepped up, some of the guys who haven’t had as much game time came on and put their best foot forward and applied themselves, and we got two wins. It just wasn’t good enough over the two days,” Friday noted.

On heading to Vancouver Sevens next week: “I didn’t do a good enough job of getting them ready for the big moments. We had a plan and we needed to stick to the plan. We all need to reflect, we need to be better. We made it very difficult for ourselves now to get back into this World Series, so there’s a lot riding on how we bounce back next week in Vancouver.”

Heading into Vancouver Sevens, the squad will reflect and refocus. Placement is more important than ever as the squad hopes to stay in the mix for early qualification to Paris 2024. HSBC Vancouver Sevens kicks off Friday, March 3, LIVE on Peacock.

Name Position HSBC Tournaments
1. Aaron Cummings Forward 9
3. David Still Forward/Wing 14
5. Joe Schroeder Forward 28
6. Kevon Williams (C) Halfback/Wing 42
7. Naima Fuala’au Halfback 20
8. Malacchi Esdale Center/Wing 13
9. Stephen Tomasin Utility 49
10. Faitala Talapusi Halfback 14
11. Perry Baker Wing/Center 62
14. Marcus Tupuola Halfback/Center 20
15. Gavan D'Amore Forward 15
16. Adam Channel Forward 7
18. Maka Unufe Wing 45

USA Men's Sevens Traveling Staff

Head Coach | Mike Friday

Performance Analyst | Dave Gardner

Strength & Conditioning | Josh Schnell

Athletic Trainer | Bobby Gragston

Team Manager | Scott Novack