USA Men Head To Russia For Week 2 Of VNL

Speraw Gives Us A Look Behind The Curtain

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The first week of VNL play for the U.S. men saw them go 1-2, scoring a win over Australia and falling to Brazil and Poland.

This week, the Americans head to Ufa, Russia, where they will face a new trio of opponents in Italy, Russia, and Portugal. 

Here everything you need to know about this week’s upcoming action:

Team USA

USA Volleyball has not released the roster for Week 2, so we can’t say for sure which 14 players will take the court in Russia. Based on social media activity, we’re fairly sure Micah Ma’a, Kawika Shoji, David Smith, and Mitch Stahl, all of whom traveled for Week 1, will be part of the 14-player group in Russia this week. Opposite Kyle Russell, however, appears to be back home in the U.S. Our best guess is that Ben Patch will replace him. 

Head coach John Speraw played a variety of different lineups in Week 1, utilizing every player on the roster with the exception of outside hitter Jake Langlois. Four players finished the first three matches with more than 20 points: T.J. DeFalco (33), Taylor Sander (30), Kyle Ensing (25), and Mitch Stahl (25).

Stahl, who had his VNL debut last week, had a great showing, collection 10 stuff blocks, six more than the next closest guy on the roster. Setter Josh Tuaniga, who is in his first season with the senior men’s national team after graduating from Long Beach State last month, got the starting nod in two of three matches last week, coming in as a sub in the third.

The Competition

Italy | Friday, June 7, 6 AM CT | Watch Live

World No. 4 Italy won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympics, but has not finished higher than third at a major international tournament since. The 2018 season was particularly disappointing for the Italians, as they finished eighth at the inaugural edition of VNL and then narrowly missed the semifinals at World Championships, which Italy hosted, finishing fifth.

For 2019’s VNL, Italy head coach Gianlorenzo Blengini brought back 11 of the men who made up the World Championships roster, but some notable names are missing. There will be no Ivan Zaytsev, who led the team in points at last year’s VNL, and no Osmany Juantorena, who tore it up for his professional team Cucine Lube Civitanova over the offseason, leading them to a Champions League crown.

Gabriele Nelli, last year’s third-highest scorer for Italy at VNL, has stepped up in the absence of superstars Zaytsev and Juantorena, tallying 57 points in Italy’s first three matches. The 6-11 opposite plays for Trentino Volley of the Italian league, alongside American outside hitter Aaron Russell. 

Other key players in Italy’s 2-1 start of VNL (beating Germany and China and losing to Iran), include outside hitter Oleg Antonov (at 30 the oldest player on the roster), captain and setter Simone Giannelli, and libero Fabio Balaso. 

Russia | Saturday, June 8, 9 AM CT | Watch Live

Russia also got out to a 2-1 start at this year’s VNL and is tied with Italy for the No. 4 ranking in the world. After opening the tournament with a four-set loss to France, the Russians rebounded to defeat Japan and Serbia. 

The six-time world champions are the defending VNL gold medalists, but only finished sixth at the 2018 World Championships to conclude the 2018 season. 

Leadership on the court so far in 2019 has fallen to 23-year-old Egor Kliuka and 24-year-old outside Dmitry Volkov, who lead the team with 64 and 43 total points, along with 28-year-old captain and setter Igor Kobzar, all three of whom were members of Russia’s Olympic roster in 2016.

...Which means they remember the USA coming back from down 0-2 to snatch the bronze medal match out of Russia’s hands. Since that bronze-medal battle in 2016, Russia and the USA have played each other six times, with each team winning three matches. 

The rivalry continues this week, and this time Russia’s got home-court advantage.

Portugal | Sunday, June 9, 6 AM CT | Watch Live

Portugal earned a spot in the 2019 VNL by winning last year’s Challenger Cup, replacing relegated Korea in the top-level tournament. This European squad has never qualified for the Olympics, has played in only two World Championships, and haven’t finished higher than fourth at the European Championships since the inaugural competition in 1948.

But all that didn’t stop the underdog squad from scoring a four-set victory over Bulgaria in Week 1.

"As I said at the beginning of the tournament, we were going to grow as the games go and today we showed what we can do,” Marco Ferreira, who led the team with 19 points versus Bulgaria, said after the match. “It’s a real pride for us to be here and I want to thank my teammates for this victory.” 

Marco Ferreira, 31, and his younger brother Alexandre, 27, are the leaders and top offensive weapons for this team. Marco swings from the right, while Alexandre hits on the left, and both men stand 6-8. In the first week of VNL play, Alexandre scored a team-high 36 points, while Marco tallied 32. 

Non-USA Match of the Week

Iran vs. Brazil | Friday, June 7, 1:40 AM CT | Watch Live

Two of the three teams that went undefeated in Week 1 will face off in the first match of Week 2. Iran’s biggest victory so far was a four-setter over Italy, while Brazil had a fantastic 2019 VNL debut, sweeping a young USA team, beating Australia in five, and dominating Poland in four.

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