|U.S. volleyball's Matt Anderson (left), David Smith, and Donald Suxho hope to keep their momentum from a strong World League showing going at London--but with an even better ending. (Getty Images)|
The U.S. women's volleyball team recently proved -- again -- that it will be the team to beat in London. But with a chance Sunday to show they belong squarely in the medal conversation, too, the U.S. men unfortunately received what might prove to be a reality check in the FIVB World League final.
The U.S. hadn't won (or even medaled in) the annual World League tournament since 2008, when they not-so-coincidentally used their surprise championship as a springboard to an even-more-surprising gold medal in Beijing. So American hopes were high for a similar good omen headed into Sunday's championship match against world power Poland. But those hopes were quickly dashed as the Poles' powerful serving hamstrung the U.S. attack and led to a 3-0 sweep, 25-17, 26-24, 25-20.
“I'm disappointed in the way we played tonight,” U.S. coach Alan Knipe told USAVolleyball.org afterward. “But a lot of really good things have come out in the last few weeks. These were important matches for us. We wanted to reach the final and experience these matches and build toward the Olympic Games.”
The U.S. entered 2012 ranked sixth in the world but outperformed that ranking for most of the World League competition, eliminating favored Italy in pool play before sweeping hosts Bulgaria and traditional world heavyweight Cuba for a ticket to the final. Despite the disappointment against Poland, the silver finish and improved play from members like captain and Finals Best Server Clay Stanley will raise hopes of the U.S. catching fire at the right time a la 2008.
"In the beginning of World League, I didn't think we'd be in this position,” Stanley said Sunday. "I thought our team improved each weekend. We did a lot of great things to get to this final, although I'm disappointed in how we showed up to play tonight."
Still, the Olympic road ahead for the Americans is a long, hard one. They've been drawn into by far the more difficult of the tournament's two groups, the one featuring world No. 1 Brazil, gold medal contenders Russia, a strong Serbian side, and a hot Germany team that just defeated the U.S. in the World League second-round stage. The bad news is that if the Poland match is any indication, that brutal draw* means a second gold remains a long shot for the Americans. The good news is that it's a lot less long than it would have been a month ago--and as 2008 proved, a U.S. team peaking at the right time means anything can happen.
As for the U.S. women, it's not about what can happen as to what ought to happen. Last week the top-ranked U.S. polished off their third consecutive FIVB World Grand Prix title in style, sweeping China in three sets to win the tournament with a perfect 14-0 record and add the third-ranked Chinese to a list of Grand Prix victims that already included world No. 2 Brazil (twice), No. 4 Italy, and Grand Prix third-place team Turkey. Most impressively, the U.S. competed in the final round of the Grand Prix (and defeated both the Brazilians and Chinese) without multiple regular starters -- including stars like Destinee Hooker, Lindsey Berg and Logan Tom -- as coach Hugh McCutcheon tried to settle on the final few spots for his Olympic roster.
In other words, the U.S. can tie one hand behind its back and still be the best team in the world. The country's first Olympic gold medal in team volleyball has never seemed more likely. The only downside is that that also means McCutcheon and his players have never been under more pressure. The upside is that every bit of evidence the team has given us since their silver in Beijing suggests they're too good for it to matter.
|Misty May-Treanor and partner Kerri Walsh seem to be hitting their stride at the right time. (Getty Images)|
Meanwhile, on the beach: Team USA's hopes are as high as ever after a weekend sweep of the FIVB World Tour's stop in Gstaad, Switzerland. Despite their No. 6 seed and lack of a win on the tour yet this season, the unsurprising half of that sweep belonged to Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who waltzed through the final two rounds of the tournament with an average set score of 21-13. The event is the final one of the season for May-Treanor and Walsh until they defend their back-to-back Olympic gold medals in London.
On the men's side, the team of Jake Gibb and Sean Rosenthal only qualified for the Games a few short weeks ago. But they cemented themselves on the gold-medal shortlist anyway in Gstaad, winning their second straight World Tour Grand Slam with an upset of top-seeded American team Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser in the semifinals and Brazil's Alison Cerutti and Emanuel Rego in the finals. It was the second straight win for Gibbs and Rosenthal over Cerutti and Rego, the reigning world champions.
But if Gstaad provided Gibbs and Rosenthal (and May-Treanor and Walsh) with a fresh rush of confidence on the way to London, it was likely the opposite for Rogers and Dalhausser. The 2008 gold medalists and one-time London favorites lost their No. 1 ranking to Cerutti and Rego in June and came away from Gstaad without a medal, losing the bronze-medal match to unheralded Italians Daniele Lupo and Paolo Nicolai, only a day after dropping the first set to Gibbs and Rosenthal by an ugly 21-10 score. If Rogers and Dalhausser want to match May-Treanor's and Walsh's back-to-back feat, they're going to have to rediscover their form in a hurry.
*The positive from the draw is that if the U.S. men do get out of their group, they'll be just one win away from the medal rounds and -- unless they draw Poland -- likely facing a team they'll be favored to beat.