Russia beats USA in four to win VNL championship

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Russia celebrates after winning the Volleyball Nations League/FIVB photo

No one on the USA men’s national team is satisfied with silver.

But, they had to admit, it sure is better than bronze and a major improvement on fourth place.

“I’ve gotten way too many third places in my life, and so this isn’t the worst thing that’s happened, but it makes me hungry,” USA outside hitter Taylor Sander said after losing 25-23, 20-25, 25-21, 25-20 to Russia on Sunday in Chicago in the final of the 2019 Volleyball Nations League.

“I want to get a gold medal and that’s what we’re going to work towards.”

The VNL silver medal marks the first finish higher than third for the American men since the 2015 World Cup. In the four years since, Team USA has taken a fifth at the 2015 World League, bronze at the 2016 Olympics, fourth at the 2017 World League, fourth at the 2017 Grand Champions Cup, bronze at the 2018 VNL, and bronze at the 2018 World Championships.

The USA lost the opening set of the VNL gold-medal match but rallied back in the second to even the score at 1-1. Control of the match slipped again in the third and USA head coach John Speraw decided to make some pretty drastic lineup changes heading into the fourth.

After replacing starting outside hitter Aaron Russell with Garret Muagututia part way through the first set, Speraw took Muagututia out of the lineup, moved Matt Anderson to the left, and inserted Ben Patch at opposite. Anderson, of course, plays outside for his professional teams, but has played opposite for the USA men since 2013.

If the changes had worked, Speraw would have looked like a genius, but it didn’t. Patch collected just one kill and made three hitting errors. Anderson, meanwhile, got six points in the fourth set, but it wasn’t enough to stop the well-balanced Russia offense.

Anderson finished the match with 19 points and earned the VNL MVP and Best Opposite honors. Captain Taylor Sander led all players with 20 points. Max Holt (Best Middle Blocker), Micah Christenson (Best Setter), and Erik Shoji (Best Libero) also appeared on the 2019 VNL Dream Team.

“Gosh, we just got beat by a team that was a little better than us tonight,” Speraw said. “I think we had our chances in the first set. There were some ebbs and flows where I thought we were the better team, and they just made a lot of plays at the service line. At the end of the day, we didn’t serve the ball as well as we should have so we had enough scoring opportunities.”

The seven-week-long tournament left the USA, and no doubt other teams around the world, beat up and tired. Middles Mitch Stahl and Dan McDonnell are injured, and at the final round, Russell appeared to be less than 100 percent.

The team will now return to Anaheim to recover, train, and prepare for the biggest event of the summer: the Olympic Qualification Tournament in the Netherlands, Aug. 9-11.

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