U.S. Women and Japan Training Together for Future

By Bill Kauffman (bill.kauffman@usav.org) | July 25, 2018, 11:56 p.m. (ET)

Michelle Bartsch-Hackley during training
Michelle Bartsch-Hackley, MVP of the FIVB Volleyball Nations League, training to get better in prep for FIVB World Championship.

ANAHEIM, California (July 25, 2018) – Past. Present. Future. It may be cliché, but that is how the U.S. Women’s National Team is moving on from its recent successes.

While winning gold at both the FIVB Volleyball Nations League and Pan American Cup earlier this month, Team USA learned things that it needs to improve upon today to get better for the future with the upcoming FIVB World Championship being the next major carrot dangling in front of them.

The U.S. are hosting Japan this week in a joint training block mainly in Anaheim – the official host city for the U.S. Women’s and Men’s National Volleyball Teams – with a friendly exhibition match scheduled for Friday at Tustin High School in Tustin, California. For the fans, the 7 p.m. match will be the last time to see the Americans suited up on home soil before playing the World Championship in Japan at the end of September.

Foluke Akinradewo, a two-time Olympic medalist who is aiming for a third Olympic Games roster, said it is great to have Japan training alongside Team USA in Anaheim this week as part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games Two-Years-Out Celebration. However, she feels having the hosts of the 2018 FIVB World Championship as your training partner two months before it starts is just as important for the near future.

“I think it is such an honor to have Japan here this week, especially seeing the 2020 Olympic Games will be in Tokyo,” Akinradewo said. “They have a really strong team. Defensively, they are always pursuing the ball. They are the kind of team you can never take it easy with. To get the reps against them before meeting them again in World Championships is great.”

The U.S. Women open their title defense of the FIVB World Championship in the first-round Pool C in Kobe, Japan. Team USA will face Azerbaijan, Trinidad & Tobago, Korea, Thailand and Russia in its first-round matches held Sept. 29 to Oct. 4. The championship culminates on Oct. 20 in Yokohama.

The Americans have already established a line of success in 2018. Team USA captured the inaugural FIVB Volleyball Nations League gold medal on July 1, finishing with an overall record of 17-2. During the five-week, 15-match preliminary round that took them to five countries on three continents, Team USA overcame a challenging 1-1 start at home in Lincoln, Nebraska, to rattle off 10 consecutive wins en route to going 13-2 overall heading into the Final Six. In the championship match, the U.S. rallied to defeat Turkey – a team that defeated them in Lincoln and pushed the Americans to a five-set match in the Final Six pool play.

The VNL gold also provided some teachable moments for the Americans in which they can learn from in the future. The team realizes it cannot rest on those laurels as it is now a tournament in the past.

“I think it is a little bit of both,” Akinradewo said on winning gold and learning from the VNL experience before moving on. “It is nice to know we can play at a high level, having only been together a couple weeks before the VNL and for some players only three days before the start. Knowing we can build upon that and do well in that tournament. At the same time, the VNL showed a lot of areas where we have weaknesses. In the next couple months, we are going to be working on that and trying to improve to be at our best at the start of the World Championships.”

While the VNL pinpointed some of the team’s weaknesses, Akinradewo also said it showed the team’s strengths at the same time.

“Our passers. I think that was a big part of our strengths,” Akinradewo said. “Kelsey (Robinson) as libero, I think she has done an exceptional job and kind of stabilized us in the back line. I think we saw some great things from our outsides with the connections with Carli (Lloyd). Michelle Bartsch-Hackley did an amazing job. Just in general it is great knowing we have depth in that area. I think overall, as a team, we are really good at adjusting at moments when things are not going well. Like how do we react and adjust to make it matter. I think we just have a great team atmosphere, and that showed a lot.”

Being adaptable at all times was also a key strength for the U.S. Women during the VNL, and it can only prove to be beneficial in the biggest tournament of the year – the World Championship. Being adaptable to countries playing different styles in a 13-match tournament over the course of 22 days was key in 2014 when it won the World Championship, and also again this year in the VNL.

“We didn’t have a lot of time together before the VNL started,” Akinradewo said. “Everything was learning on the fly, taking one match at a time and building upon that.”

After its exhibition match with Japan on Friday, Team USA will continue to learn on the fly next month as it gets another competition opportunity prior to playing in the World Championship. The U.S. will travel to Brazil for a four-match exhibition series. The two teams will meet on Aug. 12 in Brasilia, followed with two matches in Uberaba on Aug. 14 and Aug. 16. The exhibition series concludes on Aug. 18 in Rio de Janeiro.