Men's Olympic Qualifier Preview

Last weekend at the FIVB Tokyo Qualification Tournament, the USA women earned their spot in the 2020 Olympics, and this week it could be the men’s turn. 

The USA men’s national team is in Pool B of the men’s qualification tournament, and it will face Belgium on Friday, Korea on Saturday, and Netherlands on Sunday, with the first-place finisher in the pool receiving a ticket to Tokyo. 

On paper, there’s almost no reason the USA men, ranked No. 2 in the world, won’t secure their Olympic berth this weekend. Perhaps the biggest challenge for the team will be the relative lack of familiarity with these opponents, since they don’t face them regularly in events like the Volleyball Nations League, World Cup, etc., as they do other top-ranked world teams like Brazil, Russia, and Poland.

That said, each of these teams has its star players and will have plenty of motivation with a spot in the Olympics on the line. 

USA Volleyball has not yet released an official roster for the Tokyo Qualification Tournament, but we have a good idea which players will be competing because the team has been in Europe for about a week already where they trained with and scrimmaged against France’s national team. The group looks almost identical to the one that went to Chicago last month for the VNL Finals, with the addition of middle blocker Mitch Stahl—who missed the last few weeks of VNL with a hand injury—as well as outside Jake Langlois and libero Kyle Dagostino. 

Prior to Friday’s match, USA head coach John Speraw will need to designate his official 14-man roster, but especially considering the injuries the team dealt with throughout VNL, the choice to bring a few additional guys with them to Europe seems smart. 

Spotted in France:

Setters: Micah Christenson, Micah Ma’a, Kawika Shoji

Liberos: Erik Shoji, Kyle Dagostino

Outsides: Aaron Russell, Thomas Jaeschke, Garrett Muagututia, Jake Langlois, Taylor Sander

Opposites: Matt Anderson, Ben Patch

Middles: Max Holt, David Smith, Mitch Stahl, George Huhmann, Jeff Jendryk

Team USA found another level during VNL, breaking through their bronze-medal curse and taking home silver with a loss to Russia in the final. If they can keep it up, the Olympic berth is all but theirs. 

Friday night, 27-year-old Belgian captain Sam Deroo will lead his team, known as the Red Dragons, in its challenge of the mighty USA. The 6-foot-9 outside hitter plays professionally for top Polish league team Zaksa Kędzierzyn-Koźle, with which he has won three PlusLiga championships in four years. Deroo recently suffered an abdominal injury, but just last week he played in a pair of friendly matches versus Italy and appears to be mostly recovered.

Setter Stijn D'hulst helped Belgium advance to the second round of the World Championships last year, finishing the tournament with a 4-4 record in 10th place. He then made his debut in the Italian professional league, where he played backup to Brazil’s legendary setter Bruno Mossa de Rezende for Champions League gold medalist Cucine Lube Civitanova. 

One more reason not to totally count Belgium out: The last time USA and Belgium faced each other, during the 2017 World League, the European squad won in four sets.

The complete 14-man roster for Belgium is as follows: Stijn D’Hulst, Matthias Valkiers, Hendrik Tuerlinckx, Bram Van den Dries, Arno Van de Velde, Simon Van de Voorde, Pieter Verhees, Seppe Baetens, Sam Deroo, Igor Grobelny, Tomas Rousseaux, Matthijs Verhanneman, Lowie Stuer, Tim Verstraete. 

Saturday, the Americans take on Korea, and the guy to watch on this team is Jung Ji-Seok. Just 24 years old, Ji-Seok joined the Korea national team in 2016 and quickly rocketed to a starring role. Standing 6-foot-4, the opposite led all Korea players in last year’s VNL with 141 points, and this past professional season, the Korea Volleyball Federation named him MVP of the V-League regular season. 

Korea did not get a chance to compete in this year’s VNL, as the team finished in last place in 2018 and was relegated. This year, however, they’ve got a new coach, Im Do-heon, at the helm, who is hoping to help his team return to the Olympics for the first time in 20 years. 

Finally, the USA will have to get past the Netherlands. The Dutch men were an absolute powerhouse in the 1990s, winning silver at the 1992 Olympics and gold in 1996, in between claiming a silver medal at the 1994 World Championships. 

But the level of play dropped off severely since then, and the Netherlands men’s team has not appeared in an Olympics since 2004. Just last fall the Netherlands celebrated its return to the men’s World Championships for the first time in 16 years. The Dutch team finished eighth, but secured big upsets over Brazil and France in their first-round pool. 

Setter-turned-opposite Nimir Abdel-Aziz serves as captain for this Dutch squad. The 6-foot-7 27-year-old plays professionally for Revivre Axopower Milan in Italy’s Serie A1 and finished the 2017-18 season as the top scorer in Italy.

Fans of NCAA men’s volleyball may also see a familiar face on the Netherlands squad: Stijn van Tilburg, the three-time All-American pin hitter from the University of Hawaii. Van Tilburg headed to the Dutch national team gym soon after finishing runner-up at the NCAA championship in May, but we don’t know if he’s been included in the final Netherlands roster for this week’s competition.

The Tokyo Qualification Tournament features five other pools, each with four teams, and by the end of the weekend, six teams, seven if you count host Japan, will have secured a spot in next year’s Olympics. 

Here’s the schedule for Pool B in Rotterdam and where to watch: 

Aug. 9

Netherlands vs. Korea, 9 AM CT (live on the Olympic Channel)

Belgium vs. the U.S. 12 PM CT (live on the Olympic Channel; re-air on NBCSN at 9 PM CT)

Aug. 10

Belgium vs. Netherlands, 9 AM CT (3 p.m. on NBCSN)

USA vs. Korea, 12 PM CT (live on Olympic Channel; re-air on NBCSN at 9 PM CT)

Aug. 11

Netherlands vs. USA, 9 AM CT (live on Olympic Channel re-air on NBCSN at 9:30 PM CT)

Korea vs. Belgium, 12 PM CT

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