The U.S. mens's volleyball team celebrates at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on July 12, 2019 in Chicago.
CHICAGO — The United States men’s volleyball team already knew that it had qualified for the semifinals heading into its final Pool A match Friday night against Russia in the FIVB Volleyball Nations League final round.
But with first place in the group still up for grabs, Team USA showed that it meant business with a 25-21, 25-17, 25-20 victory to set up a matchup with Brazil in Saturday’s semifinals.
Coach John Speraw’s team automatically qualified for the final round as hosts, allowing him a chance to experiment with many younger players over the course of the competition. For the finals, the U.S. was going to use nothing but its best with Olympic qualifying down the road in August.
Speraw used six of the same seven starters in pool play in Olympians and U.S. stalwarts — captain Taylor Sander, middle blockers Max Holt and David Smith, setter Micah Christenson, opposite hitter Matt Anderson and libero Erik Shoji.
“I thought we played well tonight so I'm just pleased with the way we competed,” Speraw said. “We obviously haven't had tons of time with that group so I obviously wanted to get them out there on the court.”
That included getting back some key Olympians who had previously been out. Outside hitter Aaron Russell returned Wednesday against France for his first U.S. appearance since last year’s world championship.
On Friday, it was time for Tom Jaeschke — who grew up in the Chicago area — to continue his road back from a torn ACL last year as he took Russell’s spot in the lineup. Jaeschke led the way with 13 points.
The U.S. opened pool play Wednesday with a 25-16, 25-22, 23-25, 25-21 win over a stubborn France team while the defending champion Russians swept aside the French in three sets on Thursday. That match featured 13 kills by Russell and eight blocks by Holt and put group supremacy on the line Friday night.
A tight first set saw the U.S. open up breathing room at 13-10 on a spike by Sander. Anderson had an ace in a run of three straight winning service points to push the margin to 18-13 and a spike by Jaeschke capped the first set and Team USA proceeded to dominate the second set.
“We ironed some things out that we wanted to, we got in a nice rhythm with serving reception and now we're looking forward to tomorrow's semifinal battle," Christenson said.
That second set paved the way for Speraw to use reserves Ben Patch, Garrett Muagututia, Micah Ma’a, Jeff Jendryk, George Huhmann and Kawika Shoji in the clinching set. This move gave some much-needed rest to the starters in this five-day event.
The final set was tied at 16-16 when the U.S. finally took control with a side out and an ace by Shoji for a two-point margin. Team USA maintained the advantage over the remainder of the set, clinching the match on a Russian service error.
“We have two really important matches, a big one tomorrow and we win that, we're onto the finals so hopefully the guys are sharp,” Holt said.
The U.S. was beaten in three sets by Brazil back on May 31 in the tournament opener, but that match did not feature this Olympian-laden squad. The Brazilians narrowly advanced by outlasting a spirited Iran in five sets Friday.
“They obviously were tested tonight so they're going to be sharp and ready for that type of a volleyball match so we'll have to be incredibly prepared,” said Speraw.
Team USA enjoyed a partisan crowd in a welcome change of atmosphere for a team that has traveled across the globe for this competition. Being around so many fans and familiar faces has been a welcome sight.
“We're really excited, we're really grateful to be able to put this event on,” Sander said. “To be here in Chicago, having so much family here, family and friends, has been amazing.”
That includes plenty of time for this veteran-laden team to bond in a city that has been ideal for players to get off their feet and explore in some sensational weather in Chicago, where the summers can often be extremely humid.
“Everyone is really enjoying being here, in the U.S., in Chicago and in downtown,” Speraw said. “There's something to be said when you've been out on the road for all these weeks be in a city where you can get out of the hotel, walk around, see some things, get a good meal.”
Speraw wasn’t happy with some of his team’s connections in the first match and saw improvement Friday. There were also serving issues as the players got used to the lighting in the arena. Based on the first two sets Friday, it doesn’t look like it is taking Team USA that long to gel with its usual starters back in the mix.
“I think that's one of our strengths,” Sander said. “We're really a tight-knit group. We work very hard at that part of the game, being one as a unit. So we pride ourselves in playing team volleyball.”