Iran made the perfect opponent for the U.S. Men’s National Team as the Americans prepared for the FIVB World Championships. The two countries competed in the USA Volleyball Cup Aug. 9-16, playing four exhibition matches at locations across Southern California. Iran, ranked 11th in the world and making the trip to the U.S. for the first time in 35 years, has proved to be a formidable opponent for the U.S. recently, defeating the Americans in last November’s Grand Champions Cup. The U.S. then beat the Iranians in World League this summer, solidifying what has become quite a rivalry between the two teams.
In addition to being a center for volleyball culture, Southern California also has a large population of Iranian Americans, guaranteeing a good audience for each of the four matches.
Indeed, Iranian fans dominated USC’s Galen Center for the first match of the series, making up the majority of the 5,230 spectators. However, it was the U.S. who ultimately dominated the volleyball competition, taking a 27-25, 25-21, 27-29, 25-17 victory. Team USA’s Matt Anderson led all scorers with 23 points: 15 kills, five aces, and three blocks. Former USC star outside hitter Tony Ciarelli also saw the floor, earning 12 kills and two aces in his first return to the Galen Center since competing in the NCAA national championship match there in 2012. Hawaii grad Alfee Reft played libero in the match.
The next installment of the cup took place at the Anaheim Convention Center, with the U.S. sweeping Iran 25-23, 25-23, 25-21 in front of 4,900 fans. In the second set, Iran led 22-18, but the U.S.’s Aaron Russell, a rising senior at Penn State, went on a serving run, elevating the U.S. to a 24-22 lead, and ultimately the U.S. was able to pull out the win in that set and subsequently the match. Former UC Irvine star player Carson Clark started at outside, collecting 14 kills and two aces.
On Aug. 15, the action moved to San Diego State where the U.S. incurred its only loss of the series, with Iran taking the victory in five, 24-26, 26-24, 25-27, 25-20, 15-9. The U.S. team had 25 service errors, while the Iranians had only 15, and Iran’s star opposite hitter Amir Ghafour, who earned the Best Scorer award in World League this summer, led the match with 22 kills, three blocks, and an ace. USA Volleyball estimated the crowd to be around 3,462 that night.
The final match played on Aug. 16 was originally scheduled at Pauley Pavilion, but due to a water-main break and subsequent flooding on the UCLA campus, the match was moved to UC Irvine’s Bren Events Center. There, in front of a 3,610-person crowd, the U.S. redeemed the previous night’s loss with a 3-0 win (25-18, 25-22, 25-19).
Early in the Iranian delegation’s visit, USA Volleyball and the Iranian Volleyball Federation met at the Anaheim White House restaurant where they signed an agreement aimed at building bilateral cooperation between the two organizations. The agreement called on the two countries to work together to strengthen their standard of volleyball at all levels. Doug Beal, CEO of USA Volleyball, nicely summarized the importance of this effort: Sport is a powerful vehicle to improve understanding and mutual respect.
The volleyball diplomacy continued with the U.S. and Iranian teams training together and going out to dinner following the match in San Diego.
The U.S. and Iran met again in pool play at the World Championships in late August where the U.S. lost in five. The two teams are also in the same pool for the 2015 World League competition, so the U.S. will travel to Iran next summer.