Taylor Sander (#3) and Matt Anderson (#1) celebrate at the FIVB Volleyball Nations League on July 14, 2019 in Chicago.
CHICAGO — The United States was poised to win its first major men’s volleyball tournament since the 2015 World Cup and first on home soil since the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984.
But while the squad was forced to settle for second place after falling 25-23, 20-25, 25-21, 25-20 to defending champion Russia in the FIVB Men’s Volleyball Nations League gold-medal match, it did so in front of a boisterous and appreciative home crowd Sunday night at the Credit Union 1 Arena.
“Our goal was to get in this final and we accomplished that,” captain Taylor Sander said. “We got beat by a good team tonight.”
Sander had 20 points to lead the United States and Matt Anderson —who was named tournament MVP — notched 19. The MVP honor was bittersweet for opposite hitter Anderson.
“It's really tough to be happy with losing a gold-medal match, right?” Anderson said. “I am happy with the way that I played but I know that I can play a lot better.”
This contest was a rematch of a straight-set rout by the U.S. on Friday in the Pool A finale. Russia, however, rested its starters for that match to get ready for the medal round and its star-studded lineup featuring Victor Poletaev and Dmitry Volkov proved to be formidable.
After Russia captured a taut first set, the Americans recovered to even the match. Micah Christenson’s service ace trickled over the net for the clinching point that evened the contest.
Perhaps the turning point was a pivotal third set. The U.S started off strong, winning six service points in building a 10-5 advantage. The Russians took control after that, winning seven of the set’s final 11 points to secure the lead in the match for good.
“We just got beat by a team that was a little bit better than us,” U.S. coach John Speraw said. “I think we had our chances in that first set, I'll probably look back on that, wish we had some of those points.”
The coach started his usual lineup of Sander, Anderson, Christenson, Maxwell Holt, David Smith, Aaron Russell and Erik Shoji as libero. Russell was only able to play the first set as he continues to recover from an injury that had sidelined him from U.S. duty since last year’s world championships. Garrett Muagututia took his place to start the second set.
“He's not 100 percent so it wasn't going to happen for him tonight so we didn't feel like pushing it,” Speraw said. “Garrett's been great for us, he had a great VNL, that's the direction we went, it didn't work out.”
Speraw tried to create a spark for his team by inserting Ben Patch into his lineup in the fourth set, with Jeff Jendryk also starting. The early exchanges looked promising, as Sander drilled an ace off the side of Egor Kliuka’s face for a 9-8 advantage that sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Once again, Russia showed its poise and experience to methodically gain the upper hand with Poletaev spiking home the winning point as his squad erupted in celebrations.
The constant theme for the Americans afterward was the Russians’ superior serving. It resulted in some shaky play at times that put the U.S. on the wrong end of situations.
"They put a lot of service pressure on us,” Sander said. “We did a lot of good things, but in the end, they served better than us.”
Joining Anderson on the all-tournament team were Holt, Shoji and Christenson. Anderson, who made his customary move to opposite for the United States after playing on the left side for his club team, was a major fan favorite with his aerial exploits.
“It takes a little time (to adjust),” Anderson said. “But I'm healthy and it's something I've been doing for our team the last five years so it's not as big of a difference as it was when I was first doing it but I know what the team needs from me as an opposite and I just need to find that rhythm again and that positivity to my game.”
Getting ready for the final was no easy matter after an emotional 25-21, 17-25, 21-25, 25-20, 15-9 win over Brazil in a thrilling semifinal Saturday. That match saw the U.S. fall into early deficits in the second, third and fourth sets, managing to turn the tide in the fourth to set up a pulsating decider.
That fifth set against the powerful Brazilians saw reserve Jendryk develop into the unlikely star. The middle blocker, a Chicago native playing in front of friends and family, served for five straight points in a key stretch for an 11-5 advantage and also came up with two highlight-reel digs in the fifth set.
The United States finished 3-1 in the Finals, also defeating France in pool play. The high-level matches in the medal round bode well for the future with Olympic qualifying looming in August.
“I think VNL was great for us, VNL Finals was fantastic,” Speraw said. “We played two great teams, we won one of them and lost another. We'll just go on and learn from it.”