— Three matches stand between the USA men and a spot in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Head coach John Speraw and a group of 14 athletes (Matt Anderson, Aaron Russell, Taylor Sander, Jeff Jendryk, Mitch Stahl, Kawika Shoji, Micah Christenson, Max Holt, Ben Patch, Micah Ma’a, Thomas Jaeschke, Garrett Muagututia, David Smith, and Erik Shoji) are in Europe this week in pursuit of a first-place finish in Pool B of the Tokyo Qualification Tournament. Play begins Friday, with the USA taking on Belgium, then it’s Korea on Saturday, and host Netherlands Sunday.
The USA, ranked No. 2 in the world, is fresh off a silver-medal finish at the 2019 Volleyball Nations League and a pair of bronze medals at major international events last summer. Their opponents this week in Rotterdam, however, rank No. 12 (Belgium), No. 15 (Netherlands), and No. 24 (Korea) in the world. Even former powerhouse Netherlands hasn’t been to the Olympics since 2004, and none of the three teams competed in VNL earlier this summer.
What I’m saying is, same as with the women last week in Bossier City, Louisiana, it would be pretty shocking if the USA didn’t come out on top of this pool.
The American contingent warmed up for the qualification tournament by training with and playing in a friendly match against the France national team. Speraw appears to be going with the same core group of athletes he utilized at the VNL Finals last month, with a few additions. The most notable change is that middle Mitch Stahl, who was injured midway through the preliminary rounds of VNL, appears to have recovered, which is great news since prior to his injury Stahl was one of the top-performing middles on the team.
Speraw also added outside hitter Jake Langlois and libero Kyle Dagostino to the European traveling group, but it seems safe to assume that barring some injury we aren’t aware of that Speraw will field the same 14-player roster as the one he used for VNL Finals, perhaps only switching out George Huhmann for Stahl. But USA Volleyball has not released an official 14-player roster yet so an educated guess is the best we can offer you.
The biggest pain point for USA in the VNL Finals, specifically the gold-medal match versus Russia, was on the outside. Taylor Sander looked like one of the best players in the world, but the second OH spot wasn’t quite as locked up.
At VNL Finals, Aaron Russell appeared to be injured, or maybe just worn down by a long professional season, but either way he wasn’t getting it done on serve receive or offense. A couple times, Speraw subbed in Garrett Muagututia for his passing skills, but he didn’t bring the kind of heat in attacking that is necessary to win that level of matches. Speraw chose not to use Thomas Jaeschke much, presumably because he’s still working his way back from surgery to repair a torn ACL.
So if there is a weak spot for USA heading into this weekend’s match, it is the OH2 spot. Best case scenario, Russell and Jaeschke both feel healthy and Speraw once again has options and depth at the position, with Muagututia ready to go whenever a stabilizing presence is needed on serve receive.
But with Micah Christenson at setter, Erik Shoji at libero, newly crowned VNL MVP Matt Anderson on the right, and any combination of David Smith/Max Holt/Jeff Jendryk/Huhmann/Stahl in the middle, the USA has everything it needs in the other five spots on the court to lock this Olympic qualification thing up by Sunday.
Pool B Schedule: Tokyo Qualification Tournament
Netherlands vs. Korea, 10 a.m. (live on the Olympic Channel
Belgium vs. the U.S. 1 p.m. (live on the Olympic Channel; re-air on NBCSN at 10 p.m.)
Belgium vs. Netherlands, 10 a.m. (5 p.m. on NBCSN)
USA vs. Korea, 1 p.m. (live on Olympic Channel; re-air on NBCSN at 10 p.m.)
Netherlands vs. USA, 10 a.m. (live on Olympic Channel re-air on NBCSN at 10:30 p.m.)
Korea vs. Belgium, 1 p.m.