It almost didn’t happen.

The 48-team draw. The 16 American spots. The double-elimination. The AVP-FIVB combination.

It almost imploded, collapsed unto itself for all the reasons you’d expect: Too many guaranteed American teams, a legitimate beef from the international players. The bulk of the non-American players on the FIVB players union demurred. They wouldn’t play. Not under that format. No, sir.

It took some individual coaxing, courtesy of Casey Patterson and likely a few other American representatives. It’s not an Olympic year, they argued, so an odd points breakdown isn’t devastating to anybody. And besides, it’s Huntington Beach –- Southern California! –- which, alongside Hermosa or Manhattan, is the idyllic setting for a beach volleyball tournament, particularly for one of this magnitude and size.

“I just talked to them about how huge it is for it to have the event at Huntington Beach. We go to Long Beach, and that’s not a beach anyone goes to be a tourist or play beach volleyball. In the States, we go to Florida, and in St. Pete, we’re on a park in the grass,” Patterson said.

“Huntington Beach is the most epic spot to have a beach volleyball event. I expressed all those things to the top players and said ‘Look guys, let’s make this work. Even if it doesn’t count for points it’s an opportunity for you to come to Southern California and the label that we have. This is what it really is.

“That’s what I expressed to them and they understood how special this event is going to be, so they compromised, Donald (Sun) compromised, and it’s huge. I’m just stoked everyone gets to come here to Southern California.”

Yes, everyone is here, save for the few injured or on maternity leave. Phil Dalhausser and Nick Lucena (USA), Bruno and Alison (Brazil), Andre and Evandro (Brazil), Markus Bockermann and Lars Fluggen (Germany), Aleksandrs Samoilovs and Janis Smedins (Latvia), Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen (Netherlands), Piotr Kantor and Bartosz Losiak (Poland).

MEN: The Favorites
Phil Dalhausser-Nick Lucena, USA
You know Phil and Nick. Everyone knows Phil and Nick. They’re the guys who won their first tournament together in 2005, took a little break to win an Olympic gold medal here, FIVB medal there, an assortment of AVPs, and now they’re back, the presumed No. 1 team in the world despite the points rankings disagreeing.

They’ve played just two events this year, lightening the load on aging bones, taking first in Fort Lauderdale without dropping a single set, and fourth the next weekend in Doha.

They’re No. 1 until a rough enough stretch says otherwise.

Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen, Netherlands
The most physical team on tour, they’ve played in five events and landed top-10s in all five. Where Dalhausser and Lucena fell short in Doha, Brouwer-Meeuwsen finished atop the podium. A week later, in their home country, they logged win No. 2, unless you count a January victory in January on the European Tour, in which they beat Poland’s Kantor and Losiak.

Six events. Three wins.

Another possible gold in Huntington Beach.

Piotr Kantor-Bartosz Losiak, Poland
The Most Interesting/Captivating/Fascinating/YouTubeable team in beach volleyball, the young Polish team has gone from gimmicky upstarts to bona fide world powers. Their victory in Rio de Janeiro to begin the 2016 season has proven to be a launching pad rather than a fluke from a team that runs the volleyball version of a spread, no-huddle offense.

In four events this year, they’ve logged four top-fives, including a silver medal at The Hague.

Viacheslav Krasilnikov-Nikita Liamin, Russia
If you’ve seen their match from the 2017 World Championships against Dalhausser and Lucena, you’ll know exactly why this team will be listed as a favorite until Krasilnikov stops playing beach volleyball, which shouldn’t be for quite some time considering he’s 27.

I’ve never seen a single player so decisively rule a match the way Krasilnikov did in their 21-15, 21-18 win. They wound up third, but if one match could illustrate the upside of this team, it was that one.

Dalhausser and Lucena exacted some revenge in Doha, smacking them 21-17, 21-15, but in the tune-up tournament in China two weeks ago, they finished second, beating Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb, Clemens Doppler-Alexander Horst and Alison-Bruno along the way.

The Contenders
Aleksandrs Samoilovs-Janis Smedins, Latvia
The Lion King and The Lefty. The latter is not actually Smedins’ nickname, but he’s a southpaw and it adds some nice alliteration to the nickname, so we’re going with it. These two have been one of the most consistently high-finishing teams on tour, but they went all of 2017 without a single FIVB podium.

They broke that streak in Fort Lauderdale, beating Brazil’s Pedro Solberg and George Wanderley for the bronze.

Another medal wouldn’t be unlikely in Huntington Beach.

Evandro-Andre, Brazil
It’s possible the honeymoon phase has worn off for these two, though it’s also entirely possible they just had a stinker of a tournament in Fort Lauderdale, for they did win in Brazil not long ago. After winning the 2017 World Championships, the Brazilians were knocked out in the first round of bracket play by Italians Marco Caminati and Alex Ranghieri, who has been subbed out for Enrico Rossi due to injury.

But the World Championships weren’t that long ago, and Evandro still has the most formidable serve on tour.

Evandro is a contender in any tournament he plays in, particularly when his partner is a 6-foot-7 23-year-old who hits it just as hard, if not harder.

Adrian Gavira-Pablo Herrera, Spain
It’s kind of insane that these two combine for six appearances in the Olympic Games. Gavira is only 30 and Herrera is 35. The age-to-Olympic-appearances ratio is mind-boggling.

They’ve reached an FIVB podium in three straight years, picking up one win in 2015 and 2016. In Fort Lauderdale they were excellent, going undefeated in pool play, winning their first round of bracket play, before succumbing to eventual silver medalists Paolo Nicolai and Daniele Lupo 22-24, 21-19, 15-17.

The dark horses
Martins Plavins-Edgars Tocs, Latvia
It was a hot start to the year for these two, with a win at The Hague and a second place in Kish Island shortly after. But the world seems to have figured them out a bit, as their last three tournaments have gone ninth, ninth, seventeenth.

But still: They’ve proven they can podium. They can do it again.

Oleg Stoyanovskiy-Igor Velichko
At 21 and 22 years old, respectively, Stoyanovskiy and Velichko are silly good for their youth. Already in 2018, they’ve won one together – Velichko won another with a different partner – finished second in Doha, beating Dalhausser and Lucena in the semifinals, and then claimed gold in China without dropping a single set after their first match.

They’re still a dark horse on the simple and unscientific fact that they’re young and the sample size is too small to determine if this type of play is sustainable, but this is not a team to ignore.

Jake Gibb-Taylor Crabb
I’m going to get some crap from my American compatriots for listing these two as dark horses rather than contenders, but Americans love underdogs, so really, you’re all welcome for giving you an underdog.

Crabb can be as good as any defender in the world on any given day. Gibb has been one of the most consistent presences at the net since he first began playing internationally with Stein Metzger in 2005.

It’s just a matter of sustaining both Crabb’s ceiling and Gibb’s consistency for an entire tournament, and this is one long tournament, a four-day double-elimination that will be as unforgiving as it will be exhausting.

They’ve played three tournaments this year and haven’t cracked the quarterfinals yet. This, despite owning some resume-boosting wins, beating Evandro-Andre, Dalhausser-Lucena, and Saymon-Alvaro.

For Crabb-Gibb, it’s simply a matter of maintaining that excellent play that earned them those wins. We’ve seen them do it twice on the AVP Tour, with wins in New York and Hermosa Beach.

Now it’s time to see them do it on the international stage.

WOMEN: The Favorites
Melissa Humana-Paredes-Sarah Pavan, Canada
If Las Vegas has taught me one thing, it is this: Never leave a table while it’s hot (still working on the leaving when it gets cold part … ). This same rule applies here: Never pick against a team that’s winning. These two are playing phenomenal volleyball right now, coming off a win in China without losing a single match, the second time they’ve done so this season. The first came in early April in the Commonwealth Games, where nine of their 12 sets were double-digit victories.

In fact, their only loss since winter ended is to Summer Ross and Brooke Sweat, in Fort Lauderdale. Which brings me to the next team…

Summer Ross-Sara Hughes, USA
Many will question Ross and Hughes being put in here over other American –- and international -– teams. This is a subjective list. Feel free to debate it. I respect it, and I see your reason for doubting their label as favorites.

They’ve played one tournament together, in China, didn’t beat anybody terribly surprising and only lost to Humana-Paredes and Pavan, 22-20, 19-21, 14-16. The sum of their parts is yet to be seen.

But individually, this team makes so much sense, a pair of ball-control oriented players who side out well and set excellent. There is an argument to be made that Ross is the best American blocker – alongside Alix Klineman, Kelly Claes and Lauren Fendrick – and Hughes is the best defender not named April Ross.

The ceiling is incredibly high for these two, though whether they can put it together this weekend, in just their second tournament, is of course yet to be seen.

Fernanda Alves-Barbara Seixas, Brazil
Where Humana-Paredes-Pavan are hot, and Ross-Hughes are being projected on mostly potential, Fernanda-Barbara are as consistent as tomorrow’s sunrise. They just don’t really lose to teams they shouldn’t, an enviable quality in a sport in which so many elements –- wind, rain, refs, lines being moved during a play, an errant touch –- come into play.

This season, they’ve lost one match, to Klineman-Ross, which put them in fifth place in The Hague.

After that?

An undefeated run to a gold medal in Fort Lauderdale over fellow Brazilians Carolina-Taiana.

And gold medals are never a surprise for Brazilians.

Alix Klineman-April Ross, USA
Perhaps I’m biased –- I am –- but I still believe April is the best player in the world. She brings heat from the serving line, sides out at a higher clip than anyone I care to keep unofficial stats for while watching film, and is a digging machine.

When playing behind a 6-foot-5 blocker who can also side out exceptionally well, get her hands on a lot of balls, and alter the shots of the ones she doesn’t touch -– well, that’s a recipe for wins. And they did begin the season with one, in The Hague, but followed it with a 25th in Fort Lauderdale and a fifth in China after dropping an epic three-setter to Brazilians Agatha and Duda. Speaking of which …

The Contenders
Agatha Bednarczuk-Eduarda Duda, Brazil
Like their Brazilian compatriots in Larissa-Talita, Agatha-Duda are remarkably consistent, finishing in the top-five in nine of their past 12 tournaments. Two of those went to the finals, and one finished with them atop the podium.

By those standards, this season hasn’t been their best thus far, with a ninth, fifth and a fourth. Then again, it’s incredibly early, and it’s possible these two are just getting warmed up for one of the biggest events on the calendar. 

Kelly Claes-Brittany Hochevar, USA
It doesn’t really matter that these two have only played one tournament together, two weeks ago in China. They grinded through the qualifier. They fought back after a loss in pool play. They survived marathon sets and more three-set matches than some of the teams above have played all season.

They took silver.

This is a very good volleyball team. Small sample size, yes, but what an excellent sample it is. This is a team that could medal again and it wouldn’t be at all surprising.

Carolina Salgado-Maria Antonelli, Brazil
This list has turned into a Brazil vs. America, but that’s sort of what the FIVB Tour has become on the women’s side, Humana-Paredes-Pavan notwithstanding. They made the finals in the first tournament of the year, at The Hague, and avenged their loss to Ross-Klineman in the next event in Fort Lauderdale. Their ninth-place finish in China was a disappointing finish, sure, but not enough to knock them out of the contender’s category.

The Dark Horses
Carolina Horta-Taiana Lima, Brazil
Congratulations, Brazil: Every single team you sent is officially previewed. These two have played just a pair of tournaments this year, in Fort Lauderdale and China.

The former went quite well, grinding from the qualifier to the finals, losing only to Summer Ross-Brooke Sweat in pool play and fellow Brazilians Fernanda-Barbara in the finals.

China didn’t go as smoothly, losing in the first round of bracket play, but still, anybody who makes a five-star final deserves a spot on this list.

Lauren Fendrick-Brooke Sweat, USA
The squad is back together! After a brief hiatus, in which they both took a partner with the last name Ross, the 2016 Olympians are back in action. Their last tournament together came in August of 2016, but with three years of partnering together, the chemistry won’t be difficult to rediscover.

Emily Day-Betsi Flint, USA
Thus far, this season has been kind to new American partnerships. Klineman-Ross won their first tournament in The Hague. Claes-Hochevar finished second in their debut in China. Ross-Hughes took fifth and only lost to Humana-Paredes-Pavan, who are currently playing like they’re the No. 1 team in the world.

Day and Flint have both proven they can win, with Day claiming three AVP titles in 2017 and Flint making it to three finals, winning one.

This could be the first as partners.

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