The United States is playing half as many games against top-class opponents as it used to, possibly due to long-term decline against comparable teams.
A difficult schedule is usually seen as the best way to prepare for the World Cup, regardless of the effect of the win-loss record. Home matches against 'tier 1' countries such as Ireland or Italy also are commercially attractive.
But as the Eagles' winning percentage against Pacific Nations and other tier 2 teams has plummeted to 16 percent, games against England or France have dried up.
The Eagles are on pace to line up against tier 1 opponents just 6 times in the 4-year cycle ending with the 2015 World Cup, down from 12 such matches in the both the 2003 and 2007 quadrennials. Counting 'A' sides, America played 7 of the top 9 countries over 2000-03 and all 9 from 2004-07, but only 5 during 2008-11, and has met just 2 in the current period.
The trend tracks the USA's tier 2 decline by one cycle. The national team posted a 41 percent success rate over 1995-99 and 46 percent from 2000-03, then dipped to 20 percent from 2004-07 and 18 percent over 2008-11. In the current cycle, the US has won 2 of its 9 tier 2 games, or 22 percent.
The IRB contends its master schedule fairly allocates games. Speaking of both the USA and Canada, American IRB councilor Bob Latham said in a prepared statement that 'An exciting tier 2 schedule means that our teams are getting exposure to more regular, highly competitive matches'.
The total number of tests played by the US has declined every cycle since the 1996-99 period, from 41 to 25. Even as the US has played fewer games against the likes of Scotland and hemispheric foe Argentina, whom the national team has not faced since 2007 and 2005, respectively, the Eagles have seen the Georgians and Russians 7 times since 2009, with 2 more games due this fall.
It could be the US is increasingly seen as uncompetitive, sliding toward tier 3 status but for its obvious commercial promise for world rugby. Alternately, USARFU could be negotiating poorly relative to its tier 2 rivals. Canada, which is 4 places higher than 18th-ranked America, is this fall playing 1 more game than its southern neighbor.
The tier 2 decline began in 2006 with a 3-year, 0-8 skein, finally broken by a 2009 Denver win over the Lelos, the first of Eddie O'Sullivan's tenure. But the Eagles have since scored just 3 tier-2 triumphs for a 4-21 record extending through last Saturday's home loss to the Maple Leafs.
From the start of the pro era in 1995 to 2005, spanning the first iteration of the Pacific Nations as well as the launch of the Churchill Cup, the Eagles were a more respectable 17-23, or 43 percent.
Mike Tolkin has made five lineup changes, two of them positional, for Saturday's return leg of the World Cup qualifying series with Canada.
Luke Hume comes in at left wing as Blaine Scully reverts to fullback while Chris Wyles moves up to center for the injured Seamus Kelly. Robbie Shaw replaces Mike Petri at halfback, while Brian Doyle comes in at lock for Samu Manoa, unable to play because of visa problems, according to people familiar with the matter.
In Edmonton, the US must overcome an 18-point disadvantage, or else face Uruguay in spring 2014.
United States of America v Canada
Blaine Scully (Leicester); Takudzwa Ngwenya (Biarritz), Chris Wyles (Saracens), Andrew Suniula (Chicago Griffins), Luke Hume (Old Blue); Toby L'Estrange (New York AC), Robbie Shaw (Richmond); Shawn Pittman (undeclared), Chris Biller (San Francisco Golden Gate), Eric Fry (London Scottish), Lou Stanfill (Vicenza), Brian Doyle (New York AC), Scott Lavalla (Stade Francais), Peter Dahl (Belmont Shore), Todd Clever (captain, NTT Communications)
Reserves: Zach Fenoglio (Glendale), Titi Lamositele (Chuckanut Bay), Phil Thiel (Life Univ.)., Derek Asbun (Univ. of Cape Town); Mike Petri (New York AC), Folau Niua (USA Rugby), Roland Suniula (CS Vienne)