Gathering a group of next generation players who have been developing together on USA Junior National teams for some time now, the young prospect Men’s Sevens squad added another valuable tour of experience to their repertoire this weekend in Santiago, reaching the Bronze medal match at the 2023 PanAm Games.
Playing under the Team USA banner, first time Captain Faitala Talapusi led his squad to an undefeated Pool B campaign, before falling in heartbreaking fashion to host Chile in the gold medal semifinal. While this team had expectations for a medal, the group will leave with a new level of fire for success and most importantly, added time together on and off the pitch.
The USA only allowed 17 points across three games on day one for Pool play, racing out to wins over Mexico, Brazil and rival Canada. The extent of which had their first team players rostered for this year’s PanAm Games. Quick action at the breakdown and getting the ball out would be a difference maker, primarily in the first match against Mexico where the USA clearly came out eager to be on the front foot. Pressuring the kickoffs and restarts to win possession was also noticeable with this team on the weekend. A scrappy start against Brazil gave them the first try of the game of a 5-meter scrum. The young Dawgs settled and found Jack Wendling for the breakaway try and lead. He would fumble the ball backwards on the run, but was cleaned up by his teammates and they got open to regain and feed Jack for the score.
From there the ball was in USA control till the whistle, on a closer match than the USA would have liked. The final match against Canada, was a barnburner. There wasn’t too much on the scoreboard early, but the USA did well to keep the ball in the Canada end. Talapusi pulled up after a ruck, unable to stand on his right foot and was helped off the field. That would be his last game of the weekend, with more information to come on his condition after evaluation at home. USA defense would be the story against Canada for the late night match, keeping them to just 5 points and grinding out the win. Dawgs go 3-0 in pool play for a semifinal showdown with host Chile.
Chile was high power all weekend, with the noticeably loud and energetic home crowd at the back the whole time. The USA held them to a low scoring affair, jumping out to a 12-0 lead with tried from Ryan Santos and Orriz Bizer by the break. The USA brought in replacements with three minutes left to keep the Chilean strike in check, however a yellow card near the finish and long hot-stepping phases from Chile would pressure the USA just enough to grab three tries in the second half and walk off with the win in extra time. A heartbreaking last-minute loss for a team looking to reach the gold medal match and guarantee them a medal.
The final fixture was a rematch with Canada, a team fielding their first team players with Olympic qualification still on the board for them, and another lesson learner for the USA. Trading tries with the Canadians and mounting a 12-5 comeback before just falling short in a 19-17 loss. Returning to the rugby field for the first time since preparing for the 2019 PanAm Games, Lorenzo Thomas had a top moment, picking up a 70-meter try with a highlight worthy pass fake down the right flank.
Though disappointed to miss out on hardware, the ultimate goal for this program at the PanAms was achieved, time together. The majority of this squad will now head to their individual programs, schools and clubs, while a few return to residency in Chula Vista with a target on Mike Friday calling their name during this year’s World Rugby SVNS Series and in less than a year, the Olympic roster.