The Volleyball Nations League men’s semifinals are set and, not surprisingly, the final teams are the four with the best records. 

On Saturday in Gdansk, Poland, Japan (11-2) plays Poland (11-2) at 11 a.m. Eastern and the USA (11-2) plays Italy (10-3) at 2 p.m.

“I’m excited about playing Italy,” USA coach John Speraw said. “They’re defending world champions, playing great volleyball, and it will be the first time since 2017 that we will be playing their full team with all their starting players. 

“We played them in some friendlies last year before World Championships but they didn’t have (Alessandro) Michieletto, who is obviously one of the world’s best outside hitters. Playing a team like this, there’s a different style than what we’ve seen from France or Argentina or some of our more difficult competitors we’ve seen lately, but an exceptional team. So I’m just excited about playing a great team.”

When they met earlier in VNL, the USA came away with a 25-18, 25-18, 25-19 sweep on June 8 in Ottawa, Canada. As we wrote in our recap that day:

TJ DeFalco led a balanced attack that saw five Americans with five or more kills. DeFalco had nine kills, two blocks and four aces and had six digs. Max Holt had seven kills, two blocks and an ace.

Garrett Muagututia had seven kills and two aces, Averill Taylor had five kills, two blocks and an an ace, and Matt Anderson had six kills, six digs and an ace. 

Setter Micah Christenson, who also had a kill and a block, had the other ace as the USA held a 10-4 advantage in aces and outblocked Italy 7-1.

That was a long time ago, of course, and Italy has basically a completely different look. And the USA’s Matt Anderson, for one, did not play in that match, and right now the 36-year-old opposite is hitting on all cylinders. In the USA’s 25-21, 25-18, 17-25, 24-26, 15-9 quarterfinal victory over France on Wednesday, Anderson had 20 kills and two aces to go with seven digs

“Matt Anderson at 36 is a testament to his professionalism, which I frequently mention,” Speraw said. “He just does such a great job of taking care of his body and lifting and making sure he’s doing the right things for himself. And his work ethic and he’s always been that way. His commitment to professionalism over the last 10 years or more has really allowed him to play at a really high level. 

“He’s still a critical part of how we win volleyball matches.”

Against France, Speraw went to his bench in the fourth set, something he’s been comfortable doing all VNL with a veteran roster. Wednesday Muagututia came in at outside hitter and David Smith entered at middle.

“We’ve seen that with Garrett and Thomas Jaeschke is back full time. All of our middles have played really well in this VNL, so I have four different options. Even Taylor Averill wasn’t playing badly (against France), I just felt like having a different look would help. That worked out really well and of course Dave Smith comes in with all that experience.,” Speraw said.

“(Setter) Micah Ma’a came off the bench as a serving sub and got us some critical points in that fifth set. A lot of different contributions.”

The USA setter, Micah Christenson, not only had an ace and a team-high 12 digs, his team hit .360 against France. 

“Micah has been fantastic all tournament. He’s allowed a team with a lot of weapons to function at a really high level,” Speraw said. “I think because he’s got TJ and Thomas and Aaron Russell and Garrett on one side and Matty, who’s just produced so well on the other, and four different middles it’s a hard job to figure who to set and keep everyone happy, but Micah has really set this team in a diverse way and making it difficult to beat us. 

“I think he’s playing fantastic volleyball. He really is. That’s been a difference maker for us.”

Italy advanced with a 25-17, 25-13, 25-14 quarterfinals sweep of Argentina as Michieletto led a balanced attack with 13 kills, a block and an ace.

Japan’s Yuji Nishida hits against the Slovenia block/Volleyball World photo

Thursdays semifinals

Both ended in sweeps.

Yuki Ishikawa had 22 kills, four blocks and an ace as Japan beat Slovenia 26-24, 25-18, 25-22. Yuji Nishida had 12 kills and Ran Takahashi nine. Japan is in the semifinals for the first time in the fifth edition of VNL. Japan last stood on a podium in an international event when it won bronze in the 2009 FIVB Grand Champions Cup.

“We’re so happy with this win, it was an amazing match from us,” Ishikawa said. “I felt I was playing well and I was happy to help the team win this match. We’re feeling better every match and we have to continue to play like this in the semifinals, it will certainly be a tough match.”

Slovenia, which finished VNL 8-5, got 12 kills from Tine Urnaut and 11 and a block from Alen Pajenk.

Poland had a 10-5 blocks advantage in its 26-24, 25-21, 25-20 win over Brazil.

Left-handed outside Aleksander Sliwka had 12 kills, two blocks and two aces. Wilfredo Leon had six kills, three blocks and two aces, and Mateusz Bieniek had six kills and four aces.

“We feel great,” Śliwka said. “Playing here in Gdańsk is such an honor, our fans are amazing. We wanted to present them a great show, but also to win, of course. We achieved every goal we had today and we’re happy about it. 

“We started a bit nervous, but we overcame the difficult moments, came back quickly and did a great job.”

Brazil, which ended VNL 8-5, got 14 kills from Alan Souza, who had an ace.

Poland swept Japan when they played July 9 in the Philippines. Poland lost in the 2021 VNL final and was third last year.

Poland celebrates beating Brazil/Volleybal World photo


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