While the U.S. men's volleyball team hasn't yet secured a trip to London, no one is panicking.
The men, who have gone to seven straight Olympics, are confident as the defending gold medal winners going into their upcoming continental qualification tournament. But the team has added reason for the self-assurance: The event is being played on home soil.
Eight teams will vie for a spot in the London Games at the NORCECA Olympic qualification tournament, starting Monday at the Walter Pyramid in Long Beach, Calif. It is the first time that the United States has hosted the event.
“I really hope the fans come out in big numbers, and are super patriotic, excited and loud. Really make it a home court,” coach Alan Knipe said. “Because other than the World League a couple of weekends a year, we rarely get to play in the United States. We play the majority of our schedule on foreign soil. So the opportunity to play here - obviously with a lot riding on the tournament - is a wonderful thing.”
The men missed out on an early chance to punch a ticket to London, finishing off the podium at the 2011 World Cup. After that event many of the players scattered across the globe to play for professional teams.
The group reassembled last week for training at the American Sports Centers in Anaheim, Calif. Over the weekend, the team hosted a pair of exhibition matches against Argentina, winning both.
“Training is by far the most important thing for this team right now, just getting back on the same page with each other,” Knipe said. “But the competition mode is something that's very difficult to replicate in a gym, so these exhibitions are obviously valuable.”
The other teams competing in Long Beach are Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Puerto Rico, Trinidad & Tobago, Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic.
Cuba is currently ranked fifth in the FIVB world rankings, a spot ahead of the U.S. men.
“This is the first time this event is being held so close to the Olympics, or so late in the year,” USA Volleyball CEO Doug Beal said. “So that puts a little more tension in the event, a little more anxiety in the air for the teams.”
The U.S. men have qualified for the past three Olympics at the NORCECA qualification tournament. In 1996, the men won an automatic bid to the Atlanta Games as the host country.
The men were undefeated at the Beijing Olympics, upsetting top-ranked Brazil in the final match. Coach Hugh McCutcheon guided the team despite personal tragedy: His father-in-law was murdered at a Chinese landmark a day before the opening ceremonies.
After the Olympics, McCutcheon shifted over to the U.S. women's national team, which won the silver medal in Beijing. The women are currently ranked No. 1 in the world and have already secured a spot in London.
Knipe took leave from his job as the head coach at Long Beach State to take over the national team for the 2009-2012 Olympic quadrennial.
Twelve men's teams will play in the London Olympics. Great Britain has already earned a berth as host, while Russia, Poland and Brazil qualified with the top finishes in last year's FIVB World Cup.
The U.S. men have won three Olympic volleyball gold medals, at the Los Angeles Games in 1984, the Seoul Games in 1988 and in Beijing.
If the team does not qualify, they'll likely have another chance. The FIVB, the international governing body for volleyball, will hold three four-team qualification tournaments in Japan, Italy and Germany in June. Invitations to the events are based on world ranking.