The breakdown of the six USA volleyball teams in Tokyo, with some scene-setting

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USA volleyball preview 7/23/2021-USA women's national team
The USA women celebrate winning the 2016 bronze medal in Rio/FIVB photo
These are the Sensory-Deprivation Olympics: No fans. No natural crowd noise. No touching.
— Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post

Ah, the sound of silence …

One of the really cool things in volleyball is the Boom! Boom! you get when someone absolutely crushes a ball, that sound you hear when they strike it with their hand and then the noise it makes when it hits the floor.

But you shouldn’t hear that at the Olympics. 

We will, however.

Welcome to the Quiet Games.

When it’s all said and done, when the flame is extinguished, the Tokyo Olympics will have been an athletic success. That’s because the athletes will, as they always do, save the Games.

In our case, in volleyball, it will all be OK because it always is. 

In the meantime, as the indoor and beach volleyball competitions begin on Saturday, let’s not lose sight of the circumstances. While NBC will have you think it’s all rainbows, unicorns, and Biles, these will be a Games like no other. 

The daily fear of testing positive for COVID-19 will hang over the heads of the volleyball players (and all the other athletes) like the Sword of Damocles. We already lost Taylor Crabb to a positive test — and he was vaccinated. He won’t be the last Olympian to get his time in Tokyo cut short. After quarantining, of course.

I left my home in San Diego at 8:30 a.m. Friday the 19th and reached my hotel in Tokyo at noon on the 21st.
— VolleyballMag.com photo editor Ed Chan

Assuming Ed gets out of testing purgatory and the like, he’ll get to cover the volleyball. 

When he goes to the beach, and is there in that big structure with no crowd, at least the AVP on-sand announcer Mark Scheuermann will be there. He’ll be hyping it up for the players as he did last summer when the AVP had three tournaments in a crowdless bubble in Long Beach.

It was weird.

With that in mind, here’s a look at what to expect from our six USA teams.

USA women’s indoor — Could this finally be the year?

The Americans who have won silver three times — including at two of the last three Olympics — are the favorites. They’re ranked No. 1 in the world and coming off a dominating performance at Volleyball Nations League in Italy in June. 

But they’ve never won gold. 

This is a team with seemingly all the pieces, led by Jordan Larson, the veteran outside hitter who has become one of the best players in the world. Larson has had a pretty good 2021, winning top honors at the Athletes Unlimited pro volleyball venture this past spring and then leading the USA women to a 14-1 record at VNL before beating Turkey in the semifinals and Brazil in the championship match.

The other outside hitter will be Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, who just keeps getting better and better and was named MVP of the VNL. 

The thought here is the setter will be Jordyn Poulter, young but no doubt ready to lead. The libero — she’s the only one on the roster — will be Justine Wong-Orantes.

It’s hard to imagine one middle not being Foluke Akinradewo Gunderson. Either Chiaka Ogbogu or Haleigh Washington will be the other.

Who will play opposite? Either Annie Drews or Jordan Thompson. Also on the roster are versatile outside Kelsey Robinson and experienced outside Kim Hill — who have both worn the libero jersey for the national team — and setter Micha Hancock.

During VNL, coach Karch Kiraly played them all and gave everyone a shot. One would assume he will be quick to change lineups if needed.

The USA opens with Argentina, Russia, Turkey, China, and Italy. We should take to heart what assistant coach Luka Slabe said in our story about him and the team earlier this week:

“We are all looking forward to that we get to play some really, really good teams in our pool. Tough pool, but it’s going to be a fun pool and it’s really hard to see any team getting out of this group without a loss.” 

The other pool has Serbia, the Dominican Republic, Japan, Kenya, Brazil, and Korea.  

Here’s the history:

The USA finished fifth the last time the Olympics were in Tokyo, in 1964, also the first year women’s volleyball was a part of the Games. Here’s the rundown since: 1968 Mexico City, eighth; 1972 Munich, did not qualify; 1976 Montreal, did not qualify; 1980 Moscow, qualified but did not compete because of the U.S. boycott; 1984 Los Angeles, silver medal (lost to China in the championship match); 1988 Seoul, seventh; 1992 Barcelona, bronze; 1996 Atlanta, seventh; 2000 Sydney, fourth (lost to Russia in five in the semifinals); 2004 Athens, fifth; 2008 Beijing, silver (lost to Brazil in the championship match); 2012 London, silver (lost to Brazil in the championship match); 2016 Rio, bronze (beat the Netherlands in the match for third place).

The view from my hotel room is of a concrete wall, and we are not allowed to go for walks, so the best part of my day has become the 20-minute shuttle ride to the media center every morning. (The ride back isn’t bad, either, but I prefer sunlight.) It’s the closest I get to feeling like I’m covering an Olympics in a foreign country; with no fans and no ability to venture into the city, this could otherwise be Tulsa 2020.
— Stephanie Apstein, SI.com

 

USA men’s indoor — If the VNL is any indication, the USA men could be in for a tough tournament.

While this is a program that has won Olympic gold three times — in 1984, 1988, and 2008 — and is coming off a bronze in Rio, nothing happened at VNL to make you think a medal is in the Americans’ future.

They finished 8-7 and lost to three of the teams in their Olympic pool, Brazil, France, and Russia. Also in the pool are Argentina (which the USA beat in VNL) and Tunisia. While the USA is seeded second overall, only the top four teams get out and into the quarterfinals.

Coach John Speraw has a mix of seasoned, talented international veterans — opposite Matt Anderson, setter Micah Christenson, middle David Smith, outside Taylor Sander, libero Erik Shoji — and some dynamic Olympic newcomers in outside TJ DeFalco and opposite Kyle Ensing.

Also on the roster are middle Mitch Stahl, setter Kawika Shoji, middle Max Holt, outside Thomas Jaeschke, and outside Garrett Muagututia.

Can the Americans stay healthy? Can they win the ones we expect, against Argentina and Tunisia, and pull off at least one other victory and build some momentum into the quarterfinals?

The USA men celebrate the Rio bronze medal/FIVB photo

Here’s the history:

The USA placed ninth in 1964 in Tokyo. Since then, 1968 Mexico City, seventh; 1972 Munich, did not qualify; 1976 Montreal, did not qualify; 1980 Moscow, did not qualify; 1984 Los Angeles, gold medal (beat Brazil in the championship match); 1988 Seoul, gold (the team went 7-0 and beat the Soviet Union in the championship match); 1992 Barcelona, bronze (beat Cuba in the third-place match); 1996 Atlanta, ninth; 2000 Sydney, 11th; 2004 Athens, fourth (lost to Russia in the bronze-medal match); 2008 Beijing, gold (the team went 8-0 and beat Brazil in the championship match); 2012 London, fifth; 2016 Rio, bronze (beat Russia in five in the third-place match).

The only thing dry around here is the bar scene — shuttered due to COVID protocols. Alcohol sales have been suspended by the government to stop the spread. Even restaurants with no sake service must close by 8 p.m. This is making the Salt Lake Olympics seem like Vegas.
— Dan Wetzel, Yahoo.com

 

USA women’s beach — The USA might have the best team in April Ross and Alix Klineman and certainly the hottest in Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil.

Ross, however, is the only one of these four who has been here before, winning silver in London with Jen Kessy in 2012 and then bronze in Rio with Kerri Walsh Jennings.

Start with Ross and Klineman, nicknamed the A Team.

From our analyst Tom Feuer: “The last time they won a tournament was in March in Doha, and they did not show up at all in Gstaad, the last event before the Games. I think it is a bit of a subterfuge. Ross and Klineman are total winners and know what it takes to compete on a global stage with the pressure cranked up high. What I don’t know, is what kind of wind conditions will prevail at Shiokaze Park. Sometimes Klineman struggles when the ball is blowing all over the place. 

“Nevertheless, when all is said and done, I like them for the gold medal.”

VolleyballMag.com photo editor Chan: “Angie Akers will have April and Alix playing at their peak when it matters most as they have had every opportunity to prepare. I expect the A Team to contend for a medal.”

Ross and Klineman are in Pool B with Sanne Keizer/Madelein Meppelink of the Netherlands, Spain’s Liliana Fernandez Steiner and Elsa Baquerizo McMillan, and China’s Xue Chen and Wang Xinxin. They play Chen and Xinxin on Saturday.

Claes and Sponcil not only got hot and claimed the second USA Olympic berth, they won the FIVB four-star tournaments in Sochi and Ostrava.

Feuer: “Sponcil is the best defender in the world right now, bar none. Her instincts and athleticism are totally on point. This team goes as far as Claes can take them. When she is ‘on’ they are medal contenders. An obstacle for ‘Team Slaes’ is that they are in a very tough pool. The second- and fourth-place finishers from Gstaad are in their quadrant. A lot of people are talking Slaes up for medals in 2024. I am not one of them. I think they can do it now. That being said, though, I think they ultimately play for bronze and lose.”

Claes and Sponcil are in Pool D with Brazil’s Ana Patricia Ramos and Rebecca Cavalcanti Barbosa Silva, Latvians Anastasija Kravcenoka and Tina Graudina, and Kenyans Gaudencia Makokha and Brackcides Khadambi. They open against the Latvians on Sunday, pitting Claes against another USC player in Graudina.

Chan: “It’s been exciting watching the ascent of this young duo. Their success depends on a creative and fluid offense rooted in exceptional ball control. Their wins in Sochi and Ostrava prove that they can beat the best in the world on a given day. Their delta is greater than the A Team; they could finish in gold or they could drop to ninth.”

The stadiums and arenas are empty. The conversations are through masks and plexiglass partitions, the contact anything but the prohibited “close.” Visitors must spit into plastic tubes at regular intervals. Their movements are tracked by smartphone apps that must be downloaded and the eyes of uniformed men on street corners, seemingly with the preeminent goal of preventing visits to restaurants or bars. Only the top halves of faces can be seen, but it is nonetheless clear: No one is smiling.
— Dave Sheinin, The Washington Post

 

USA men’s beach — This is the NBA contingent: No Babies Allowed. 

You have 41-year-old Phil Dalhausser playing with 41-year-old Nick Lucena, and 45-year-old Jake Gibb now playing with 32-year-old Tri Bourne. Bourne replaced Taylor Crabb, who tested positive for COVID-19, and who is just 29.

Ed Chan: “I always want to be optimistic for USA teams. On the men’s side, it’s hard.”

Dalhausser and Lucena finished fifth in 2016 in Rio. Dalhausser won gold with Todd Rogers in 2008 in Beijing, and they placed ninth in London in 2012.

Feuer: “This team plays best when they have a chip on their shoulder. When Lucena gets fired up and goes off and takes Phil along for the ride they are formidable. Did not like the 25th and ninth in their last two tourneys in Ostrava and Sochi. But Ostrava does not look as bad in the rear-view mirror, as they got knocked off by the emergent Dutch team, Boermans and de Groot, who subsequently won in Gstaad. The Floridians love the hot and humid weather. Hello, Tokyo! They also have to play only every two or three days, a big break for two 41-year-olds. I like them to make the quarterfinals.”

Chan: “Nick and Phil have the goods. They would probably have had a Rio medal but for a bit of bizarre stadium wind against Brazil. Phil isn’t as dominant as the best blocker, best server like the 2008 Phil, but he’s still one of the world’s best half-dozen. When Nick reads the ball well, his defensive wizardry carries the team to medals. Look for Nick to pull down some early digs and get ‘the eye of the tiger.’ When he does, Dahausser and Lucena prevail.”

Lucena and Dalhausser are in Pool D with Brazil’s Alison Conte Cerutti and Alvaro Magliano de Morais Filho, Alexander Brouwer and Robert Meeuwsen of the Netherlands, and Argentina’s Julian Amado Azaad and Nicolas Capogrosso. Dalcena opens play against the Dutch on Saturday.

Gibb made it to the 2008 Beijing quarterfinals with Sean Rosenthal, and they finished fifth again in London. In Rio, he and Casey Patterson finished 19th. Bourne is a first-time Olympian.

Feuer: “Well this could be interesting. In the ‘good old days’ when a qualifying process for the Olympics did not require a team to lock into a partnership for three years, the element of surprise could favor a fresh pairing. Opponents do not have scouting reports yet and psychologically there is a honeymoon phase playing with someone different, which ultimately can create beautiful music. 

“The good news is that Gibb’s 45-year-old body will not be taxed by a schedule that is far from demanding. Bourne will have to be a full-time defender for these Games and that may not be the best situation, but it is what it is.”

Gibb and Bourne are in Pool C with Cherif Younousse Samba and Ahmed Tijan Janko of Qatar, Italians Adrian Ignacio Carambula Raurich and Enrico Rossi, and Adrian Heidrich and Mirco Gerson of Switzerland. They open with the Italians on Sunday.

Feuer: “Their critical match will be against the Swiss team, whom they probably will need to beat to pool out. I think they will accomplish that and end up in the single-elimination Lucky Loser round.”

Instructions for visiting media ask us to take the unprecedented step of following “good hygiene practice.” Staging a multibillion-dollar event that hinges on sports reporters following “good hygiene practice” is like a building a spaceship that requires beluga whales to eat with a knife and fork, but here we are, and also: The hand-dryers in the restrooms have been disabled because of COVID-19, but there are no paper towels to replace them. Anybody determined to practice “good hygiene” must wear absorbent pants.
— Michael Rosenberg, SI.com

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2 COMMENTS

  1. After watching France beat our mens’ USA team in a 2018 VNL semi-final that went to a close 5 setter, I am thankful today Coach Speraw made the necessary change to play Sander and DeFalco at OH and Anderson at OPP. While I liked Holt’s performance today much better than in 2018 vs France, our middle blockers are not nearly as strong both offensively and defensively as the other top 5 nations. We need better middle blockers. And while I liked Micah Christensons’ creative distribution to our power hitters, he needs to work on his serve, (not giving up precious points) and his defense which gets often overlooked by a setter in base defense responsible for 1/3 of the back row defense! Coach Speraw, please help Micah prepare for his role in serving consistently and in his important role as a defender!!

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