“It is always difficult to go out and play against teams that have nothing to lose.”

Those were the words of USA coach John Speraw just minutes after his team overcame that challenge and defeated the Netherlands 3-1 (25-18, 25-20, 17-25, 25-21), marking the USA’s third victory in as many days in the Tokyo Qualification Tournament and earning a spot in the 2020 Olympics.

Playing in Pool B of the qualification tournament in Rotterdam this week, the No. 2 world-ranked USA first downed No. 12 Belgium, then No. 24 Korea, and finally No. 15 Netherlands, which also came into Sunday’s match with a 2-0 record in the pool.

“Really proud of the way that we competed all week,” Speraw continued. “It is not easy playing three matches in a row, especially when you’re the favorite. … I think we handled that stress really well. We were poised and competed incredibly hard and played a great collective team game.”

Olympic Qualification Tournament USA men Sunday-Erik Shoji
Erik Shoji passes in Olympic Qualification Tournament competition/FIVB photo

Using a very similar group of starters as the previous two nights, the USA out-blocked the Netherlands 11 to eight and scored six points from behind the service line, compared to three for the Dutch squad.

Team USA’s middles played a key role, with Max Holt contributing a match-high five blocks and David Smith collecting three points from behind the service line. But it was opposite Matt Anderson who led the team in total points, racking up 18 on 16 kills and two blocks.

Aaron Russell dealt with a knee injury during much of the Volleyball Nations League earlier this summer, but with 17 points versus the Netherlands, he proved for the third night in a row that he’s back to his typically excellent form.

“It was a tough tournament, but I’m really happy with how we all played,” Anderson said. “Aaron coming back and playing lights-out for almost every part of every match, and guys stepping in off the bench taking the place of Taylor Sander right now—it’s a great team effort all week.”

Sander, the team’s captain who finished VNL as the USA’s third-highest scorer, didn’t play a single point in the qualification tournament. Instead, Thomas Jaeschke and Garrett Muagututia shared time in the second outside hitting position opposite Russell.

On the opposite side of the net, Netherlands’ Nimir Abdel-Aziz had 23 points, helping the Dutch team to run away with the third set and hold a 12-10 lead in the fourth before the USA launched a comeback.

“We’re so happy,” libero Erik Shoji said. “We expected a battle from the Netherlands and we got that. I think it was huge how we performed at the end of each set with those three set wins. We’re just so excited, so happy, and a bit relieved to have this off of our back and just so excited to be coming home with the win.”

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