The Volleyball Nations League women’s quarterfinals begin this week in Ankara, Türkiye, and, based on the first three rounds, three-time defending-champion USA is the team to beat.
Single-elimination action opens Wednesday with Brazil (10-2) playing Japan (8-4), followed by USA (11-1) vs. Serbia (8-4). On Thursday, Italy (10-2) plays China (8-4) and Türkye (7-5) faces Thailand (5-7). That last match is a battle between the seventh- and eighth-ranked teams, but Türkye gets to be the top seed since it is the host.
The semifinals are Friday and the medal matches Saturday.
We still don’t know the 14 players who will be in uniform for the USA — we would expect an announcement Tuesday — but coach Karch Kiraly’s squad has shown that regardless of who is on the floor all it does is win.
This is a new format for this edition of the VNL, where eight teams compete in a single-elimination knockout tournament to determine the champion. The VNL is the first of two major events this summer, with the World Championships in September.
Here is a breakdown of the four matches and where the teams stand:
Japan took the VNL by storm, winning its first eight matches, including one against the USA. Sixth-place Japan’s revival after its disastrous Tokyo Olympics campaign was short-lived, because it went winless in the last round.
Brazil went into the VNL with many new faces after retirements post-Tokyo. Superstars Gabi and Carol powered Brazil to the No. 3 seed. Japan and Brazil have both played with several lineups, Despite missing the first week, Gabi is Brazil’s third top scorer. Sarina Koga is Japan’s leader, an outside hitter who is second in the VNL with 243 points. Brazil’s block will try to contain the Japanese attack, while Japan will rely on its trademark floor defense.
Carol led Brazil and the VNL with 52 blocks, nine more than anyone else and Brazil leads all teams in blocks per set. Japan’s block is the weakest of the teams left in the field. However, libero Manami Kojima ranks first among all players in digs per match and Koga is the top outside hitter in that category.
Brazilian coach Roberto Guimaraes has tried several lineups throughout the VNL, but this quarterfinal will test how prepared they have come over the past seven weeks. Georgia Tech outside hitter Julia Bergmann has had a phenomenal VNL so far. Pri Daroit, who is making the most of her return to the national team after a long absence.
Brazil has been on the VNL podium twice, falling to the USA in the last two gold-medal matches. They have not lost to Japan since 2017 in the Grand Champions Cup. Japan made its finals debut last season, finishing fourth in the bubble edition.
This is a matchup of last year’s world champs in Serbia and the Olympic gold-medalists in the USA.
Serbia got swept by the Americans two weeks ago, but this time will have outside hitter Sara Lozo, who missed the third round of VNL.
Lozo is Serbia’s third top scorer, but two familiar faces will not be present for Serbia, Tijana Boskovic and Maja Ognjenovic, who are not on Serbia’s roster. This is Serbia’s most successful performance in the VNL without Boskovic, after finishing 13th in the past two editions.
Serbia will rely on its blocking, led by Maja Aleksic, the third-best blocker in the VNL, and Jovana Stevanovic, who returned to the national team after being absent for a few years. Stevanovic was a teammate of USA setter Jordyn Poulter’s for the past two years in Busto Arsizio. She will join USA middle Dana Rettke in Monza for next season.
Serbia’s top scorer is opposite Ana Bjelica, who was eighth overall with 183 points.
The USA, which has won the last three VNL tournaments, has had a different lineup every match.
Even with limited playing time, the USA outside hitters were the stars of the preliminary phase behind Kelsey Robinson (77 kills), Ali Frantti (75), and Sarah Wilhite Parsons (69). All three of those hitters are also in the top 10 most-efficient outside hitters, entire VNL, led by Frantti, who hit .415.
There will be a battle for the starting position in the middle, as Haleigh Washington, Hannah Tapp, Chiaka Ogbogu, and Rettke all put forth excellent performances.
Will the setters be the two who played in the Olympics, Poulter and Micha Hancock, or Lauren Carlini?
The opposites will be Jordan Thompson and Annie Drews, and the liberos Justine Wong-Orantes and Morgan Hentz.
The USA has not lost to Serbia since the preliminary rounds in the 2018 VNL.
Paola Egonu, one of the top players in the world, joined Italy during the second week and Italy has not lost since.
China, on the other hand, has had an up-and-down VNL. China started strong, defeating Türkiye in Ankara the first week. They have since faltered, falling to Thailand, Japan, and Brazil while barely escaping Korea in the final match.
China is led by its young star outside hitter, Li Yingying, who is the third top scorer in the competition. Their other top contributor is Gong Xiangyu, the fifth-best scoring opposite. China will be without some familiar faces, as Zhu Ting is recovering from injury and Zhang Changning is absent. China’s coach Cai Bin has been looking for answers at outside hitter this entire VNL, experimenting with Jin Ye and Wang Yunlu. China’s middle blockers will have to bring their best performance if they are to defeat Italy. Yuan Xinyue and Wang Yuanyuan have shown both highs and lows in the preliminary phase. China also needs to find answers from one of their liberos, which has been a weakness of the team so far.
Italy brings one of the most experienced rosters to the quarterfinals, which includes nine Olympians. Their defense will be anchored by the legendary libero Monica De Gennaro. Coach Davide Mazzanti will have a tough choice to make as both setters, Ofelia Malinov and Alessia Orro, have seen consistent performances throughout the VNL. Miriam Sylla, Elena Pietrini, Cate Bosetti, and Alessia Gennari will battle for the two outside hitter positions. The middle blockers will be led by Anna Danesi and Cristina Chirichella, but Martina Lubian and her powerful serve could make some noise as well.
Italy has not been on the podium of an international event since the 2018 World Championships. But Italy has not beaten China since the 2018 matchup in the World Championship, losing five straight since. China has been on the VNL podium twice, with third-place finishes in 2018 and 2019.
Thailand has not beaten Türkye since the 2017 World Grand Prix. Thailand has faced many difficulties and challenges on its way to the finals. Star middle blockerThatdao Nuekjang was injured. In the second round, players had COVID cases, causing a scramble to find replacements. In the end, Thailand persevered and got into the quarterfinals for the first time.
Thailand is led by opposite Pimpichaya Kokram and outside hitters Chatchu-on Moksri and Ajcharaporn Kongyot. Kokram is the fourth-best scorer overall, while Moksri is sixth. Moksri and Kongyot both play professionally in Türkye for Sariyer Belediyesi. Pornpun Guedpard has flawlessly filled the shoes of the legendary Thai setter Nootsara Tomkom.
Türkye, playing at home, will be a heavy favorite, despite having an up-and-down VNL.
Türkye lost to China, Serbia, Brazil, Canada and the USA, a match in which Türkye had match set before losing in five.
Middle blockers Zehra Gunes and Eda Erdem lead Turkiye. Gunes was the second-best blocker in the preliminary phase and one of the most efficient attackers. Erdem is the veteran presence needed for a lineup that faces many changes, especially at outside hitter, where no player has been able to secure the job.
Hande Baladin, who missed the USA match with an ankle injury, will likely be one of the outside. Ebrar Karakurt will look to find consistency at the opposite position while setter Cansu Ozbay will try to lead Türkye to its first major title. Turkiye has finished on the podium twice in the VNL, third last year and second in the inaugural edition in 2018.