The Stars Are Finally Aligned For USA In VNL Final Round

The Stars Are Finally Aligned For USA In VNL Final Round

The U.S. Men's National Team and five others, the hard work has paid off and they’ve advanced to the Final Round in Lille, France.

Jul 3, 2018 by Megan Kaplon
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Five weeks. Fifteen preliminary round matches. The Volleyball Nations League is an absolute grind, but for six teams, the hard work has paid off and they’ve advanced to the Final Round in Lille, France, this week. 

In such a long tournament, the goal can’t realistically be an unblemished record, and host France enters the Final Round with the best record (12-3), despite losing to Poland, China and Italy. 

Many teams chose to let their star players rest for a week or two in the midst of the preliminary rounds, but, barring injury, all the top talent will gather in Lille, France, this week as teams compete for medals and their share of the $2.1 million purse.

Team USA advanced out of the preliminary rounds with an 11-4 record and will face Russia and Poland in Pool B. Here’s what to expect from the Volleyball Nations League Final Round.

Team USA

Team USA didn’t play its best volleyball in Week 5 of VNL, and it suffered losses to France and Russia. But when the Americans take the court in Lille, they will have enjoyed a week at home and will be celebrating the return of outside hitter Taylor Sander—who welcomed his first baby into the world just a few days ago—and Ben Patch, who had been recovering from an injury.

Sander has been absent from the VNL lineup since the very first week of competition as he awaited the birth of his son, Atli, who was born June 28. That first week, Olympians Matt Anderson, Micah Christenson and Aaron Russell had not yet joined the team, so Wednesday's Final Six match will be the first time Team USA has had these stars all together. 

If Thomas Jaeschke wasn’t out of commission after suffering a knee injury in Week 4, we would say the team was finally at full strength.

Patch’s return means head coach John Speraw has the option to start Matt Anderson on the left, while Patch holds down the opposite position. This lineup resulted in quite a bit of success for the USA at various points in the tournament, since it means Speraw can field two of his most potent offensive weapons at the same time.

With Sander and Russell both also on the roster--along with youngster T.J. DeFalco, who has played incredibly well when given the opportunity--Speraw has a plethora of strong options on the pins and the team will benefit from extra depth as the fatigue of the long tournament begins to set in.

Middles Jeff Jendryk, Dan Mcdonnell, Max Holt and David Smith, as well as liberos Erik Shoji and Dustin Watten, setter Kawika Shoji, and opposite Kyle Ensing round out the roster of 14.

Poland | July 5, 11 AM CT

Poland started VNL on a tear, winning five matches in a row, including sweeping Russia and France, before losing its first match, a major upset at the hands of Germany. The Poles suffered four subsequent losses in the preliminary rounds and enter the final round as the lowest seeded team to advance.

When Team USA played Poland in the preliminary round, it was during Poland’s worst week of the entire tournament. The 2014 World Champions lost in straight sets to Iran, the USA, and Serbia. 

“We played a good match, but I think every set at 23-23 we made one mistake more than Serbia,” Poland head coach vital Heynen said after his team’s third loss in a row. “I have a lot of inexperienced guys here trying out. That’s the price we pay. If there is someone to blame it is the coach who takes the young guys with him. It’s the process for young guys to learn. I am not satisfied with the result, but I am satisfied with the play we had.”

Two of those young guys have been absolute superstars for Poland, with 23-year-old outside hitter Artur Szalpuk leading the team with 106 total points, and 20-year-old middle blocker Jakub Kochanowski the second best scorer and top server & blocker. Kochanowski only joined national team last year, after playing a key role on the Polish Junior National Team. 

Russia | July 6, 11 AM CT

It’s difficult to know what to expect when Team USA faces Russia in the Final Round. In the teams’ previous meeting in the final week of the preliminary round, Russia easily swept the USA, but Speraw chose to rest key players Matt Anderson, Aaron Russell, Micah Christenson, and Erik Shoji during that match. The USA was also missing Taylor Sander and Ben Patch.

But Russia didn’t bring its strongest roster into the first meeting with USA either. Dmitriy Muserskiy, Russia’s 7-2 middle blocker and top scorer, did not travel to Modena, and Russia’s starting setter Igor Kobzar only played in the first set. 

Russia has historically been one of the strongest men’s volleyball teams in the world, but as of late, the USA has dominated the head-to-head results. Prior to the VNL preliminary round meeting, the Americans had won all but two of the previous 13 meetings dating back to the beginning of the 2014 season. One of those meetings: the bronze-medal match at the Rio Olympics when USA came back from an 0-2 deficit to defeat Russia in five.

Russia and the USA enter the Final Round with identical 11-4 record, with the Russians leading the Americans in the standings by just one point. When both teams field their best rosters, the USA-Russia match will be an absolute slugfest and a match you won’t want to miss. 

Non-USA Pool Play Matches in Lille

Russia vs. Poland | Wednesday, July 4, 11 AM CT

France vs. Brazil | Wednesday, July 4, 1:45 PM CT

Serbia vs. Brazil | Thursday, July 5, 1:45 PM CT

France vs. Serbia | Friday, July 6, 1:45 PM CT

Semifinals, Saturday, July 7

If the USA finishes ahead of at least one of its Final Round pool opponents, it will advance to the semifinals to face one of the top-two finishers from Pool A, which includes Brazil, Serbia, and host France. 

Despite benefitting from a reserved spot in the Final Six as the tournament host, France excelled in the preliminary rounds, rebounding from a pair of losses in the second week of play to emerge as the top team in the standings with a 12-3 overall record. 

Brazil, the reigning Olympic champion, won eight of its first nine VNL matches, but then stumbled in Week 4, losing all three of its outings in Varna, Bulgaria. 

Week 5 provided mixed results for the Brazilians, as they swept Australia, beat Poland in four to guarantee themselves a spot in the Final Six, and then lost in straight sets to Argentina. 

Serbia enters the Final Round on a five-match win streak, with its last loss coming at the hands of Team USA on June 16. Six-foot-eight opposite Drazen Luburic leads the fourth-ranked team in the standings with 151 total points and will be a key component for Serbia in the Final Round. 

The medal rounds will be played on Sunday, July 8.