Madison Hughes' 7s Eagles, off to their best start in half a decade, enter the weekend's Las Vegas tournament looking to develop a knack for winning elimination games.
Having drawn Japan and Portugal as well as South Africa, 8th-placed America should reach the winner's bracket a third consecutive outing. But the Eagles have dropped both quarterfinal contests, last weekend surrendering a 15-0 lead over Scotland, and are a modest 2-3 in high-stakes cup and plate games.
The 2014-15 7s World Series means little in comparison with June's NACRA 7s tournament, North America's regional qualifier for the 2016 Summer Games. Winning is vital: only one team, effectively Canada or the US, advances to Rio de Janeiro. (Though there is a repechage path, contenders from Europe and the Pacific Islands figure to make it much more complex.)
Olympic 7s is one of American rugby's main storylines. With ex-players driving growth among youth, the Summer Games crown rugby as the Super Bowl does football. Failure to qualify would puncture the game emotionally, structurally, economically.
US Olympic Committee funding turns on rugby's classification as not only a medal sport but also a podium contender. TV coverage of events like the USA 7s, the Collegiate Rugby Championship, and the Varsity Cup also would be at risk should the Eagles miss Rio. While the privately managed Olympic development academies have bolstered USARFU's sometimes-troubled 'offsite residency' program at the Olympic Training Center near San Diego, online media hardly does the same for for broadcast.
ODA athletes such as Tiger's Perry Baker have quickly become important to the roster of first-year coach Mike Friday. Under the English 7s specialist, previously successful with Kenya, the Eagles have improved offensively. Baker, the former Arena football player, complements speedster Carlin Isles and the athletic Zach Test, all of whom are among the Series' top 25 in tries scored. Hughes, meanwhile, is 6th in overall scoring.
Canada, which has started slowly, lies in 14th place. But the Maple Leafs are notoriously difficult in elimination matches. The pair have met just once this season, in a pool match at October's Gold Coast 7s, won 17-15 by the US on a last-minute try by Test.