Moments after the match ended and the handshakes were done, USA coach John Speraw took a seat, leaned his head back, closed his eyes and exhaled.
Any American volleyball fan could feel the pain he showed on his face.
This was the worst-case scenario.
After losing to Italy in four sets on Tuesday, the USA is now 0-2 in the Rio Olympics men’s volleyball tournament and has the unenviable task of having to beat Brazil, France and Mexico to have any chance of getting out of the six-team pool and into the quarterfinals.
It doesn’t look good. As Brazilian coach Bernardo Rezende said after his team beat Canada with the USA up next, “This is going to be a very important game, like life or death for USA. It is crucial for them. They have to win, it is crucial for them to win.”
Women first …
Before getting to the men’s matches – which included a big upset by Argentina of Russia — here’s the lineup for Wednesday as the women move back into the arena for the third day of their tournament. There are three matches in Pool B:
— China faces Puerto Rico with a chance to improve to 2-1 while keeping the Puerto Ricans winless;
— Italy plays Netherlands in a must-win for both. Italy is winelss; the Dutch are 1-1;
— The USA tries to stay unbeaten when it plays Serbia, also 2-0, at 2 p.m. Eastern.
And three matches in Pool A:
— Unbeaten Russia gets the gimme of the day when it faces Cameroon;
— Korea tries to get to 2-1 when it plays winless Argentina
— Brazil goes for 3-0 faces 1-1 Japan
Tuesday’s men’s matches
Italy 3, USA 1
The USA is in dire straits after Italy came away with the 28-26, 20-25, 25-23, 25-23 victory. The Americans were oh-so-close to winning all three sets they lost, but lose they did and now face a terribly uphill battle.
“They were way better tonight (than against Canada on Sunday). I thought we were close,” Speraw said. “This is our journey. It is what it is. This is the team. This is what we signed up for. We knew what we were getting into four years ago and here we are. It’s a tough journey.”
Aaron Russell, one of the eight USA first-time Olympians, had a match-high 22 points. Matt Anderson scored 14, while Taylor Sander and Max Holt had 12 each.
It was the second straight loss to Italy, which swept the Americans in the recent World League.
Osmany Juantorena scored 20 points for Italy, which bounced back well after Emanuele Birarelli was late in the third set when he sprained his ankle. Italy’s Ivan Zaytsev and Filippo Lanza scored 15 and 11 points, respectively.
“I am really pleased with the result against a big squad like USA that was coming back to play as hard as possible after losing their first match, Italy coach Gianlorenzo Blengin said. “Approaching the match and getting the players focused was our major difficulty. I really have to give credit to the players who came from the bench and did a good job. I really don’t consider them as bench players because they are front-row players.
The opportunities lost in the first set proved critical, a set that ended with Taylor Sander taking off on the 3-meter line on a back-row attack. The USA had no blocks in either the first and third sets.
The Americans seemed to shake whatever is ailing them in the second set, but in the third were unable to take advantage of Birarelli’s injury.
“It’s unfortunate that my teammate Emanuele got injured in this match,” Juantorena said. “He is a key player and I feel sad about what happened to him. On the other hand, I am glad that we were able to win this match because the United States is a very strong team. It’s an important victory for us.
The fourth set had more than its share of drama, especially when the USA battled back from 20-17 to tie it at 20. Anderson had a big kill to tie it at 23, but followed with a service error. The match ended on an overpass that Italy’s Lanza crushed.
“Our victory today is the best present of my life. I turned 20 today and to be here in the Olympic Games is an amazing thing,” Italy’s Simone Gianelli said. “We played well against USA and they are a very good team. After their match against Canada, we know they want to earn the victory today. We have a good team and everyone in the team helped out to get the victory. We made some mistakes in the last set, but we improved our plays and we stayed focused.”
Brazil 3, Canada 1
In the last match of the night and the one that probably most affected the pool, Canada won the first set in an exciting bit of volleyball, but then Brazil came back with a vengeance 24-26, 25-18, 25-22, 25-17.
Brazil is 2-0, while Canada, which opened with a victory over the USA, is 1-1.
Mauricio Silva led Brazil with 16 points, Ricardo Lucarelli had 15 and Wallace Souza 14. John Gordon Perrin led Canada with 15 points.
Argentina 3, Russia 1
This was a big upset as the 2012 gold-medalists fell in four, 25-18, 18-25, 25-18, 25-21. However, it marked the second straight win for Argentina over the Russians after beating them in the World League.
“I am very proud about this victory because I grew up learning from Russian volleyball,” Argentina coach Julio Velasco said. “We defeated them at the World League and it was a difficult task to repeat. We followed our game plan and kept it for the whole match.
“Our serves and defense were the keys for us. We move closer to the quarterfinals but still have matches to play. My advice to my players is to find the correct balance between confident and humble an stay that way.
Argentina, 2-0, outblocked Russia 11-7 and got 18 points from Bruno Lima and 16 from Facundo Conte.
Egor Kliuka had 16 points to lead Russia, 1-1.
France 3, Mexico 0
France bounced back from its opening-tournament loss to Italy with a 25-18, 25-12, 25-22 victory.
Advantages France held included 40-31 in attacks, 4-1 in serves and 7-3 in blocks.
Antonin Rouzier and Earvin Ngapeth each had 13 points for France and former UC Irvine star Kevin Tillie scored nine.
“It was important for us to come back in the tournament. Of course the difference of level is back in our favor. What is nice this morning is that we stayed focused and we maintained the pressure on service and defense,” said France coach Lauren Tillie, Kevin Tillie’s father.
“It was an important win for us for our recovery. Our goal is always to improve from this group. We knew that it would be difficult, so now I am ready to fight just day by day and try to play better and better, and find a solution to go to the next round.”
Poland 3, Iran 2
Things got chippy as the match ended in a 25-17, 25-23, 23-25, 20-25, 18-16 Poland victory.
Iran, which had three chances to win it in the fifth set, asked for a review of a touch on the last swing, but got overruled.
Poland celebrated, Iran didn’t like it and it took a while for both teams to settle down and eventually shake hands.
Egypt 3, Cuba 0
Egypt made history with its first Olympic volleyball victory by beating Cuba 25-22, 25-15, 25-22. Egypt had lost its first 15 Olympics matches, the last in 2008. Egypt is 1-1 while depleted Cuba is 0-2.