Before any of the 16 teams in the 2019 Volleyball Nations League launched a serve on Sunday, the final day of the preliminary rounds, the six teams that would advance to the Final Six had already been determined.
Reigning Olympic gold medalist, Brazil, leads the charge into the Final Round (July 10-14 in Chicago) at No. 1 in the standings with an almost-perfect 14-1 record. The Brazilians, who opened the 2019 VNL with a resounding 3-0 defeat of the USA, lost only to Serbia in five weeks of play, a five-set battle in week 3.
Iran, whose 12-3 record and 36 total points earned it the No. 2 seed, secured its spot before any other team, beating Serbia on Friday night and thus guaranteeing a top-six finish.
Russia also wrapped up the preliminary round with a 12-3 record, ranked third. Argentina pushed the defending VNL champ to the brink on Saturday, forcing Russia to go to five sets before earning the win and its spot in the finals. Poor Argentina had a chance at advancing until that loss.
France and Poland, both with 12-4 records, move on to the Final Round as the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds, respectively. To earn its spot, France defeat Italy in four sets on Saturday. Canada’s loss to Brazil on Saturday handed reigning VNL gold medalist Poland the final available slot in the Final Six before the European squad even had to play a single point of its final match versus Portugal on Sunday.
The USA, of course, had its Final Six berth locked up as the host of the tournament. With that in mind, for the final week of preliminary play, head coach John Speraw chose to stay home in Anaheim, California, with most of his top players—including Matt Anderson, Micah Christenson, Max Holt, Aaron Russell, Erik Shoji, Kawika Shoji, David Smith, and Taylor Sander—and send assistant coach Rob Nielson with a group of youngsters to Bulgaria to face Bulgaria, Serbia, and Iran.
On Friday night, this youthful squad stumbled against the host country, losing to Bulgaria, which won just five matches in the preliminary rounds, in four sets. The Americans made 38 errors to Bulgaria’s 25 and were out-played on defense, with Bulgaria scoring five blocks and 21 digs to the USA’s two blocks and 16 digs.
Tsvetan Sokolov, Bulgaria’s opposite who most recently competed professionally for Champions League winner Cucine Lube Civitanova and will suit up for Russian powerhouse club Zenit Kazan next season, led his team with 22 points.
We just had a hard time lining up with [Sokolov],” Nielson said after the match. “He had an unbelievably good match. Obviously he is a world-class player. It’s a tough Bulgarian team. I think our young guys played well, but we didn’t execute a few points that we needed. ...We got distracted in the third and fourth set and that’s why we lost.
USA opposite Ben Patch matched Sokolov’s tally of 22 points, all on kills. Thomas Jaeschke, Garrett Muagututia, and Taylor Averill each added 11 points, while Micah Ma’a set and Dustin Watten played libero. Current Princeton middle blocker George Huhmann, who was just added to the VNL roster this week, earned his debut at a major international tournament, playing in the first and second sets.
A new lineup took the floor on Saturday night, defeating Serbia in four sets. This time, Muagututia led the USA with 14 points, while opposite Kyle Russell added 13, and Jeff Jendryk, Jake Langlois, and Huhmann all made it into the double digits. Libero and national team rookie Kyle Dagostino also cracked the starting lineup, and Josh Tuaniga took over for Ma’a at the setter position after the first-set loss.
But the biggest match of the week took place Sunday, with the youthful group of Americans taking on Iran. With both teams already guaranteed a place in the Final Six, neither squad relied on its typical starters—which for Iran meant resting opposite Amir Ghafour, who ranks No. 2 among all scorers in the VNL with 208 points—but the straight-set victory was a big deal for the USA nonetheless.
The U.S. squad out-paced Iran in kills (44-34), blocks (11-6), aces (4-2), and digs (26-20), and Patch led the match with 16 points. With his team-leading performances against Bulgaria and Iran, Patch enters the Final Six as the USA’s top scorer with 146 total points (18th among all players in the preliminary rounds).
“Our starting players are back at home right now, training and getting really good,” Patch said to the FIVB. “And then you have us, a couple of guys who rotate in the starting lineup, who are here still competing. So heading into the Final Six both groups are ready to go, and I think it’s a really smart decision.”
The group of 14 who traveled to Bulgaria will now rejoin their teammates in Anaheim for a final few days of training before flying to Chicago for the Final Round, where for the first time this summer, their results really matter. Afterall, $1 million awaits the winner of the 2019 Volleyball Nations League, not to mention a major shot of momentum heading into Olympic qualification and the World Cup later this summer.