Volleyball Olympic Qualifying Tournament - News

USA (USA) vs. Egypt (EGY) men - Pool B #7160108

American players celebrate during the game against Egypt

United States made a perfect start to the men’s FIVB Road to Paris Volleyball Qualifiers on Saturday, but the game against Egypt was only the first in a string of seven to be played in Tokyo through next Sunday, each one of which may prove crucial and tilt the balance towards qualifying for next year’s Olympic Games in Paris, or not. The long Pool B tournament in the Japanese capital will put an end to a long national team season of training and competing, during which the team has grown, especially defensively, according to captain Micah Christenson and head coach John Speraw.

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On opening day in Tokyo, the world’s number two team hammered out a 3-0 (25-20, 25-16, 25-19) shutout of Egypt. Prominent playmaker and captain Christenson showed his magic during the game, steering the American squad towards the emphatic win, himself scoring a blocking point towards the victory.

“It felt good to be back competing under the bright lights,” he told Volleyball World. “You know we had a really long training block, getting ready for this tournament. To be able to finally be out there felt good. It felt a little bit – I don’t want to say uncomfortable – it felt a little bit unusual. Then we slowly got our rhythm, slowly learned Egypt, but also got used to the gym a little more, got used to the atmosphere, and we are definitely all happy with our first game and the success.”

“It’s interesting how this summer has felt,” coach Speraw also shared his thoughts. “Last year they had the men play right after the Volleyball Nations League was over, so we went from the VNL right into the World Champs. This summer has felt really long. Comparatively, we had time for some vacation, which was nice for the guys, then a train block, then NORCECA, then another train block to get ready for these matches. I think the overarching theme is how you prepare yourself for seven matches in nine days, what’s the balance between physical preparation in the weight room and conditioning to play this many matches in a row, versus tactical execution, how to get better as a team, versus the rest you need to get ready for something like this. So it’s not an easy process. But I think the guys have done a nice job and we are ready to go.”

After taking care of their game against Egypt, the Americans have their second match in Tokyo on Sunday at 16:00 local time (07:00 UTC), against Finland, who gave the other favourite in the pool, hosts Japan, a really hard time on Saturday, pushing them to five sets. Then, over the course of next week, USA will have to face Türkiye, Tunisia, Slovenia, Serbia and Japan, in that order, hoping to emerge with a ticket to Paris 2024 as one of the top two teams in the final pool standings.

“We talk about it all the time in sports: one possession at a time, one point at a time, one shot at a time... So for us it really is one point at a time. Each of these matches matters, each set matters, each point matters. So you just have to go out there...” said Speraw. “Now we’ve gotten the first one down and we are back to 0-0. We are going to go back and start over again.”

Earlier this season, United States topped the Preliminary Phase standings in VNL 2023 and went on to reach the final before settling for silver. Then, they made an impeccable run through the 2023 NORCECA Senior Men’s Volleyball Continental Championship and triumphed as undefeated champions, reclaiming the crown for the first time since 2017. Both Speraw and Christenson pointed out that tuning up their defensive game was part of the growth the team has shown during the season.

“I think we’ve developed quite a bit of confidence that we’ve made some improvements in the way we play the game, particularly on the defensive side,” said Speraw. “That was something that we knew coming out of the last Olympics. We wanted to be more versatile in the way we can win volleyball matches and I think we’ve been able to do that. We also continue to know who we are and what are our strengths and making sure that we continue to develop those.”

“We definitely worked on our block and defence, that was really good throughout VNL, but we were trying to continue to perfect that system,” the captain confirmed. “Then we’ve had periods and phases of each part of our game that we’ve been working on. So we’ve touched on a lot of the phases of volleyball, but at the same time our willingness to adapt and be able to change within a game is a strong suit that we can continue to get better at. So let’s see if we can continue to do that during this tournament.”