By the time the U.S. took the field at 9:30 p.m. Friday, Sam Boyd Stadium looked as if it was ready to host a UNLV-Western Illinois football game.
The Kenyans were long gone, as were the Samoans and Fijians.
But even if the atmosphere for the home team appeared to be lacking, the U.S. played hard and played well — but again came up short.
The Eagles had their chances to beat France, just as they nearly defeated Argentina earlier in the evening, but went 0-2 for the first portion of pool play before an announced opening-day crowd of 12,047. They lost 14-12 to France and 19-12 to Argentina.
Considering the U.S. lost eight of nine games entering this tournament, many by wide margins, Eagles coach Matt Hawkins was encouraged the gap finally was being closed.
“We wanted to get to the point where coming to the end of the game, we’re in the position to win the thing,” Hawkins said. “That’s what we struggled with. That’s the maturity, that mental strength we really lacked over the last three tournaments, but it’s now starting to show.”
Now it’s a matter of turning those close defeats into victories, and the U.S. will have two opportunities today.
The Eagles close pool play against Spain at 2:34 p.m., and then the trophy portion of the tournament begins.
“Winning’s a culture,” Hawkins said. “Once you start the ball rolling, you build momentum from it. The first key for us is to put ourselves in position to win games, which we’ve done now. Now the next step is to win games. Are we there? (Today) I think is going to be a very big day for us.”
The first U.S. loss occurred after the horn sounded against Argentina when Facundo Panceyra Garrido took advantage of a turnover to score a try.
American Carlin Isles’ 75-meter run for a try with 2:39 left and ensuing conversion kick by Folau Niua tied the game at 12. The other Eagles’ score came on Danny Barrett’s try to open the game.
They appeared to have a crucial try just before halftime when Nick Edwards dashed to the end-goal, but the official ruled Zack Test’s pass had been forward. That wiped out a potential tie game going into the second half.
Later, when the U.S. met France, the Eagles quickly fell behind 14-0, but then didn’t allow another point.
“Our defense and the way we played was fantastic,” Hawkins said.
The U.S. even got back into the game on two tries by Ryne Haitsuka, the last 43 seconds into the second half. Niua, however, barely missed to the right a tough conversion attempt from a sharp angle on the left.
“The boys were just talking about focusing like a band of brothers,” Haitsuka said. “Stuff happens, and all you can really do is stick to that model and stay strong.”
Family and friends were just about all that remained for the Eagles game, or so it seemed after supporters of so many other teams headed off to enjoy Las Vegas’ nightlife.
Hawkins, though, wasn’t complaining.
“I’m pretty confident if you asked any of the guys, none of their family and friends left,” Hawkins said. “That’s the most important thing to me … because a lot of those people have helped them get to this position.”
Contact reporter Mark Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-387-2914. Follow him on Twitter: @markanderson65.