USA Women Overcome Injuries to Take Early World Cup Reins

Team USA celebrates a point in the World Cup opener versus Korea.

With backs to the wall, USA rode a battered ankle and a creaky knee to a dominating 3-0 win over China (25-23, 25-17, 25-23) on the first weekend of the 2015 World Cup in Japan. With the victory, USA avoided what could have been a disastrous start to the 12-team round-robin tournament, which awards 2016 Rio Olympic bids to the top two finishers.

The sore ankle belonged to setter Alisha Glass, making her first U.S. Women’s National Team appearance of the summer in a the 3-0 opening World Cup win over Korea. Glass has struggled to recover from two serious foot injuries and played conservatively early on. Korea, plagued by poor passing, proved to be a surprisingly easy test. But Glass rustiness was fully exposed in the Sunday’s match against Serbia.

The Serbs won the first set 25-20. With the score tied at 16 in the second, Molly Kreklow replaced Glass in the 10th rotation as part of USA’s regular double-substitution. Other than one rotation in the third set, Glass stayed on the bench the rest of the way, as Kreklow led USA to wins in sets two and three, before losing the final two setsand the match. USA’s passing was the real thorn, as Kim Hill and her replacement, Kelsey Robinson, were both targeted, and Kreklow was often left with few options.

The 3-2 loss to Serbia presented a dilemma for USA head coach Karch Kiraly. Glass has been USA’s main setter for most of the quad, but her serving and defense seemed particularly weak in the first two matches, and her connection with World Grand Prix MVP Karsta Lowe was sporadic at best. Veteran double-sub setter Courtney Thompson had been left off the roster, leaving a noticeable hole in USA’s regular late-set serving and offense. Kreklow has strong connections with Lowe and with middle Foluke Akinradew, but doesnt have the same touch that Glass has with Hill and with Jordan Larson-Burbach on the outside.

For Monday’s China showdown, Kiraly opted to go with Glass. A string of Chinese errors led to an early 6-2 lead in set one, and the teams traded points from there. Late in in the setwhen Thompson is usually in the matchChina forged a 4-0 run to take a 17-15 lead. After a Nicole Fawcett kill, Kiraly pulled Kreklow and kept Glass on the sidelines, sending Fawcett to the service line. With no setter on the court, Fawcett’s precision serves kept China out of system, allowing Lowe and Christa Dietzen to shut down China’s outside attack. After Glass finally re-entered, USA maintained its two-point lead for a 25-23 win.

The second set started with a long delay, as Kiraly asked for a video challenge on a possible China net violation. As is often the case in international matches, challenge specifics get scrambled in translation among coaches, referees, and replay officials (We challenged a net touch on the block, not on the later attack!). In all three matches so far, challenges often grind on, leaving players to mill around on the court. While USA has won two of its first three challenges, Korea was 0-4, Serbia was 1-4, and China was 0-1 after video was reviewed on their respective challenges.

And then there’s that injured knee. It belongs to Dietzen, Team USA’s captain, who stayed in California for the winter to rehab what she describes as bone-on-bone deterioration. After sitting out the Korea match, Dietzen combined with Akinradewo to be a formidable presence in the middle whenever USA’s passing was in synch. And for most of the China match, passing proved key.

USA breezed to a second-set win, largely on the laser serving of Hill and Akinradewo, forcing a string of poor passes. Tied at 17 in the third, however, Dietzen collapsed on the court after colliding on a double block with Lowe. Fighting back tears, she was pulled from the match and evaluated on the sidelines. The teams continued to trade points until Glass found Lowe for a crushing kill to make it 24-22. Hill’s tip made the final score 25-23.

With the win, both USA and China are 2-1. Teams get three points for a win, two points for a five-set win, and one point for a five-set loss, so USA now leads China 7-6. China earlier defeated Serbia in four sets. USA now gets what should be a breather with matches against Peru and Algeria, continuing with Kenya after a two-day break.