By Karen Price | Oct. 06, 2019, 10:53 a.m. (ET)

(L) Ben Patch plays the ball at the men's world cup on Oct. 6, 2019 in Fukuoka, Japan.

 

The U.S. men’s volleyball team opened its world cup defense this week and will take a 4-1 record into the next phase of competition following a busy first week in Fukuoka, Japan.

Four years ago, the men used their victory at the tournament to qualify for the Olympic Games Rio 2016. This year’s tournament is not a qualifier — and the men already have their spot in Tokyo nailed down after winning the FIVB Men’s Volleyball Intercontinental Qualification Tournament back in August — but the title is nonetheless on the line. 

The U.S. currently sits in second place behind undefeated Brazil and will now travel to Hiroshima, Japan, for the final six matches. They start play again on Oct. 9 against Iran. 

Of the 16 players on the tournament roster, 14 of which are chosen before each match, the men’s team includes 2016 Olympic bronze medalists Matt Anderson, an opposite, setter Micah Christenson, libero Erik Shoji, outside hitters Aaron Russell and Thomas Jaeschke and middle blockers Max Holt and David Smith.

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Things didn’t get off to the best start for the men, who dropped the opening match of the tournament against Argentina, 25-21, 25-20, 19-25, 21-25, 15-12, on Monday. Team USA beat Argentina in the last match to win the 2015 World Cup, but Argentina took a 2-0 lead to open this year’s competition and, after the U.S. fought back to force a fifth-set tiebreaker, held on for the victory.

Russell led the team in scoring with 18 points on 17 kills and one ace while Anderson scored 15 points on 12 kills and three aces. Middle blocker Jeff Jendryk added 15 points.

Wasting no time in bouncing back, however, the U.S. handed Italy a 19-25, 25-19, 25-14, 25-19 defeat on Wednesday for its first win of the tournament.

Team USA used the same starting personnel except for the replacement of Jendryk by Smith. Anderson and Russell each scored 16 points with 12 kills and four aces.

After a day off, the men came back to face defending world champion Poland on Friday and came away with a winning record at the tournament after a 25-19, 25-20, 24-26, 27-25 victory.

Anderson was once again the top contributor on the scoreboard, finishing with 23 points on a match-high 22 kills and one block, and Russell was right there with him with 18 points on 16 kills, one block and one ace. 

That set up a showdown with the host nation, and the U.S. continued its run with a 25-19, 25-19, 25-21 sweep of Japan on Saturday. For the third match in a row head coach John Speraw started Russell and Garrett Muagututia at outside hitter, Holt and Smith at middle blocker, Anderson at opposite, Christenson at setter and Shoji at libero. Holt led the team with 12 points on four kills, five blocks and three aces.

Finally, on Sunday the U.S. faced and swept Tunisia, 25-10, 25-18, 25-17. Mitch Stahl made his first start of the tournament and finished with a team-high 10 points on three kills, five blocks and two aces, and Ben Patch made his first start at opposite and scored nine points on nine kills. T.J. DeFalco came off the bench and also scored nine points.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.