Team USA's men's freestyle delegation has landed in Iran ahead of this week's 2017 Freestyle World Cup. After all the political posturing and uncertainty, that in and of itself is a victory. However, the Americans will have designs on more victories to come when the competition gets under way Thursday morning in Kermanshah, Iran. The United States has drawn the much more difficult of the two groups and will face Russia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia on Thursday before a placement match on Friday.
This will be the 45th Freestyle World Cup, but just the 16th held outside of the United States. In the early days, Toledo, Ohio, was almost always the site for what started out as a four-team event. Toledo hosted 17 of the first 19 tournaments with the US hosting 26 of the first 31 overall. Iran first hosted the event in 1996 which was also the first time they won the title. This will be the fifth time the Iranians have played host overall. They've won three of the four World Cups on their home soil and lost in the finals in the other, in 2009 when Azerbaijan were the champions. They should be back in the title match this time around as well as they have drawn a group featuring India, Mongolia, and Turkey, none of whom should trouble Iran.
The Soviet Union won the World Cup 15 times over the first 17 years of competition. Even though they ceased to exist after the 1991 World Cup, they still own more titles than anyone else. The United States is second all-time with 13 championships, Iran has won seven, Russia has six, Azerbaijan has won twice, and Cuba owns a single title from 2005. However, Iran has run off five consecutive World Cup titles over the past five years while the United State has not won since 2003 in Boise, Idaho.
Russia has not won a World Cup outside their own country since 1998 in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and it is fair to say they don't always take this competition all that seriously. This year, they are sending a team without much world championship or Olympic experience and none of the winners from the recent Yarygin tournament. However, the Russian depth is still impressive. They should not be taken lightly.
Though none of the duals will be easy, perhaps the most difficult challenge for the United States will come from Azerbaijan. That team boasts five different world or Olympic medalists in addition to young up and coming talent to augment the proven veterans. With Russia's team unproven and Georgia not bringing defending world and Olympic champion Vladimer Khinchegashvili, the clash between Team USA and Azerbaijan could decide who faces Iran in the finals.
UPDATE: The third group dual will now be on Friday with the United States taking on Azerbaijan after the Russia/Georgia dual that begins at 12:30 am eastern. Expect that to push back the placement matches as well, though with the break the third-place and finals matches could stay at the same time.
Action gets underway at 9:30 am local time Thursday morning, which is 1:00 am eastern (that is not a misprint, the time difference is really 8.5 hours), with the first two sessions of group action. The third and final group match is Thursday at 4:30 pm local, 8 am eastern. Friday will feature the placement matches as the two fourth place teams in each group clash for seventh, the third place teams battle for fifth, the second place finishers go for third, and the group champions meet for the World Cup crown. The seventh-place dual is at 10 am local, 1:30 am eastern, fifth place follows at 11:15 am local, 2:45 am eastern. There is a break before the third-place match at 4:00 pm local, 7:30 am eastern, followed by the finals at 5:30 pm local, 9 am eastern. TrackWrestling will be providing a live stream of both mats here.
With the over-arching details out of the way, let's go team-by-team to break down the line-ups and how they'll fare.
2016 Finish: 4th
57 kg – Tony Ramos, two-time World team member
57 kg – Nahshon Garrett
61 kg – Logan Stieber, 2016 World champion
61 kg – Jayson Ness
65 kg – Frank Molinaro, 2016 Olympic fifth-place finisher
70 kg – James Green, 2015 World bronze, 2016 World team member
70 kg – Jordan Oliver
74 kg – Jordan Burroughs, Four-time World and Olympic champion, 2014 World bronze, 2016 Olympian
74 kg – Alex Dieringer
86 kg – David Taylor
86 kg – Richard Perry
97 kg – Kyle Snyder, 2016 Olympic gold medalist, 2015 World champion
125 kg – Zach Rey, 2015 World team member
125 kg – Nick Gwiazdowski
Other than J'den Cox at 86 kg, this is about as strong a line-up as Team USA can put on the mat in 2017. Kyle Dake would have been a nice back-up to have at 74 kg, but the return of Jordan Burroughs, especially if he is back to top form, should render that irrelevant. If David Taylor can continue his recent run of strong results at the international level, the Americans won't miss Cox too badly either. This is a tough lineup if everyone is at their best.
For the Americans to win, Burroughs and Kyle Snyder need to be lights out. Snyder just won Yarygin and won't have to deal with long-time foil Elizbar Odikadze (Georgia) so he should be fine. Burroughs, on the other hand, hasn't been in competition since a disastrous Rio Olympics left his future uncertain. He is back and fully committed, but we don't yet know if this summer was an aberration or something more problematic. The 74 kg field isn't incredibly tough here, but Burroughs meeting with 2016 Olympic bronze medalist Jabrayil Hasanov could be a key bout in the Azerbaijan dual.
In addition to Burroughs and Snyder, Team USA needs freshly minted world champion Logan Stieber to continue to be the best at his weight. It seems silly to question whether a brand new world champion is the best, but that tournament did not include Haji Aliyev (AZE), the 2014 and 2015 world champion who chose to go to down to 57 kg and ended up with a bronze medal in Rio. When those two meet, all eyes will be on them and the winner will cement themselves at the top of 61 kg.
Frank Molinaro had a brilliant run last year, ending up just shy of a medal despite a horrendous Olympic draw. He hasn't been invincible, but he just might be the best 65 kg in this field. If Molinaro can wrestle like it and avoid upsets, it would mean Team USA has four great chances to win in every dual. That would leave Ramos, James Green, Taylor, and the Rey/Gwiz platoon needing just one win per dual to ensure an American victory. Even if Aliyev were to beat Stieber, those four are more than capable of getting a couple of wins against Azerbaijan. It won't be easy, but Green is a clear favorite and Ramos has to be considered a toss-up. We'll make our predictions a little later and break down a potential finals clash with Iran, but that is a very real possibility.
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