While the FIVB Volleyball World Cup is only the first opportunity of several for the indoor men’s volleyball team to qualify for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, to many it is the most difficult.
“It's the most challenging tournament in the four-year cycle,” said two-time Olympian Kevin Barnett, now a television analyst with the FOX regional sports networks. “This is Olympic qualifying. There are no playoffs; you have to play every single team. It's 11 matches in an incredibly compressed schedule. It's demanding, and the teams are good.”
The World Cup begins Tuesday in Japan and runs through Sept. 23. It's a grueling two-week test of skill, depth, fitness and endurance that will determine the first two teams heading to next summer’s Olympics.
Unlike World League, which is held annually in multiple venues over several weeks, and the world championship and the Olympic Games, which also seed teams, the World Cup is a 12-team round-robin event where each team plays all the others.
Despite its pedigree with three Olympic gold medals and a bronze since 1984, Team USA has finished fourth at the World Cup four out of the last five times (it finished sixth in 2011).
“I … think it is a very challenging tournament,” said Team USA coach John Speraw, also the coach at 19-time NCAA champion UCLA. “The teams that don’t have a lot of depth could potentially struggle more than the teams that do.”
And depth is an advantage for Team USA, according to Paul Sunderland, a member of the 1984 Olympic championship team and now an analyst with ESPN.
“Depth is important,” Sunderland said. “The U.S. is a really deep team, young and deep. I'll take talent, irrespective of birthday, anytime. With guys like Thomas Jaeschke, they're all really good, maybe the best young group since I played with Dusty Dvorak, Steve Timmons, Karch Kiraly, Patrick Powers.
“This group of young guys is as good as that group of young guys. They're that good. Well, no Karch maybe.”
Jaeschke is injured and will not compete. But that still leaves a team led by Matt Anderson, Aaron Russell, Micah Christenson and Murphy Troy.
That doesn't mean Sunderland is guaranteeing Team USA will qualify.
“Should they and can they are two different things,” he said. “Certainly, they can qualify.”
The U.S. team that will compete in Japan is a largely overhauled side than the one that finished fifth at the London Olympic Games three years ago. It's a group that won the Group 1 final round of the World League, finished in first place overall in 2014, and took the bronze in this year's finals in July with a second-place finish overall.
General consensus has 2014 world champion Poland among the lead contenders for the world cup. With Brazil not participating due to its automatic Olympic qualification as host, other favorites include Team USA, Iran, Italy and Russia.
Iran has never qualified for the Olympic Games but won the Asian Games title in 2014 and was runner-up in the Asian Championship earlier this year. Russia, and its predecessor the Soviet Union, has a resume with three Olympic gold medals and six world championship crowns, but won only one of 12 matches in this year's World League.
However, Vladimir Alekno has replaced Andrey Voronkov as coach, returning him to the post where he led Russia to two World League titles and a European championship. With his return have come Maxim Mikhailov, Sergey Grankin and Sergey Tetyukhin, a five-time Olympian and four-time medalist who will turn 40 on the day the World Cup ends.
Italy didn't qualify for this year's European championship but took silver in 2011 and 2013, bronze in London in 2012 and bronze medals at the 2013 and 2014 World Leagues.
And then there are the spoilers, if not contenders.
“For me, there are three teams: Iran, Argentina, Canada, that will beat somebody, or a couple, that will matter in final rankings,” Barnett said.
Sunderland also throws Australia in as a potential spoiler.
Team USA is coming off a four-game friendly series against Brazil in California, where it lost three.
But Sunderland dismisses the results as merely exhibitions. Both he and Barnett agree, as does Speraw, that maintaining a mental and emotional sharpness will be the critical factor in a tournament with few, if any, soft spots.
“I think we are in a good place, physically,” Speraw said. “The most challenging part about this tournament is the mental side; being able to reach peak performance day after day.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter, mostly with the Associated Press and Bloomberg News. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.