The U.S. women’s volleyball team is already two weeks into FIVB Volleyball Nations League play, but the men's quest to medal for the second year in a row just began on Friday in Katowice, Poland.
The No. 2-ranked men, who won bronze in last year’s inaugural VNL Final, are now 1-2 with four points after the opening weekend of play.
Team USA kicked things off against a familiar opponent. The U.S. and Brazil met twice in last year’s tournament, with the U.S. losing in the preliminary round but then winning in the medal round to claim the bronze medal.
Still, facing the top-ranked team in the world wasn’t an easy first test and the U.S. men were swept, 22-25, 22-25, 23-25. T.J. DeFalco, who was still playing in the NCAA Tournament a month ago, led the team in scoring with 11 kills and two aces while Olympian Taylor Sander had 11 points on 11 kills. Mitch Stahl, who was making his VNL debut, scored nine points on five kills, three blocks and one ace. A number of players made their national team debuts including setters Josh Tuaniga, who started, and Micah Ma’a and opposite Kyle Russell.
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Things didn’t get any easier on Saturday against Poland, the defending world champions. Although the U.S. pushed it to five sets, they fell to 0-2 in the tournament with a 17-25, 34-32, 26-28, 25-23, 15-9 loss. Once again DeFalco led the team in scoring with 20 points on a team-high 17 kills, one block and two aces while Garrett Muagututia had 19 points on 16 kills and a team-high three aces. Despite the loss, the Americans did pick up their first point for taking the match to five sets.
That sent the U.S. into Sunday looking for its first win before moving on to the next set of three games in Ufa, Russia. Its opponent, Australia, was also looking for its first win. The U.S. dropped the first set but then strung together three strong sets in a row to emerge with a 19-25, 27-25, 25-16, 25-16 victory. Sander led all scorers with 13 points while Ma’a wasn’t far behind with 11.
The VNL includes 16 teams that will play 15 preliminary round matches over five weeks. This year the U.S. is hosting the Final Round in Chicago, July 10-14, and therefore automatically qualifies for the final. Without that pressure to be amongst the top five teams after the round robin concludes, the U.S. has the luxury of mixing in younger players with veterans to help them get some experience during the early rounds.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.