By Andy J. Gordon
Americans rarely get to see world class indoor volleyball in the United States. The game is popular in Europe, Asia and South America, but the US treats it as a second or third class sport so there is little incentive to hold competitions here. Fortunately for US fans, the men’s national team faced the Russians in Long Beach, California on June 6 and 7. It was a special treat to see two of the best teams in the world battle it out on US soil.
The FIVB runs the sport internationally and their World League competition features several global men’s national teams facing each other for a multi-million dollar purse. World League is the most prestigious competition during non-Olympic years. This year the US National Team is ranked 4th in the world while the Russians are ranked 2nd. The Russians won World League in 2013 and won the Gold Medal in the 2012 Olympics so they were a formidable adversary for the American squad.
On June 6th, the Americans squeaked out a closely contested battle, winning in five sets (25-17, 27-25, 20-25, 27-25, 15-12). The following night, the Russians were seeking payback at the Walter Pyramid on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. The arena was sold out as 5000 fans, many dressed in patriotic red, white and blue, cheered aggressively for their home town favorites. The USA team’s training headquarters are in nearby Anaheim, California so the players and staff lives locally with their families. The home team advantage was definitely in full force.
The American team played extremely well on the 7th as they swept the Russians in three straight sets (25–19, 25–23, 25–17). Two new members of the team, Taylor Sander, an outside hitter and Micah Christiansen, the setter, played pivotal roles for the USA team. Sander is coming off an outstanding year at BYU where he was named collegiate player of the year. His powerful jump serve, steady passing and explosive attack are a great addition to the team. Christiansen is the starting setter at USC with one more year of college eligibility. He has been training with the national team when his schedule permits since 2013. Christiansen did a great job of distributing the ball to his hitters. The American squad was forced to use a different starting lineup this weekend due to the knee injury Reid Priddy suffered during a match last month against Bulgaria. Priddy, 36, has been a major part of the team’s success over the last decade, but will miss the season while he recovers from surgery on the knee. Coach John Speraw juggled the lineup by starting Sander and team captain Sean Rooney at outside hitters and placing regular outside hitter Matt Anderson at the opposite position. Anderson was virtually unstoppable from the right side, recording a team high 31 kills. Middles Max Holt and David Lee blocked and attacked effectively while Libero Eric Shoji passed brilliantly.
The Russian squad is big, strong and quick, but their ball control and blocking was clearly inferior to the Americans. Russia was led by outside hitter Denis Biriukov and opposite Denis Zemchenok. Zemchenok, a lefty with a wicked arm swing was particularly hard to stop. The Russian middles and outside attackers were most effective when they tipped the ball short to the sidelines over the USA block. This tactic worked a few times but was not enough to counter the USA’s powerful, balanced attack, superb defense and effective transition play. One sequence that epitomized the USA’s dominance was a spectacular dig by Sander off of a blistering cross court, sharp angle outside attack from Biriukov. Christiansen set the dig perfectly back to Sander who crushed the ball past the Russian’s big double block.
The crowd was loud and proud throughout the match, but at the conclusion of the third set, everyone stood and enthusiastically applauded the excellent USA team. After the traditional handshakes among the players of both teams, the USA squad waved and clapped for the fans. Coach Speraw was later quoted as saying, “I think it is a nice experience to play at home. We are very grateful to play in Southern California. We train here and all our families are here. It was a really nice atmosphere and we really appreciate the opportunity to play here in front of a big crowd.”
The USA men’s team is undefeated so far in World League competition with upcoming matches to be played in Chicago against Serbia on June 13 and 14 and against Bulgaria on June 20 and 21. It will be the last chance to see the men in the US. The team will travel to Kaliningrad, Russia to face the Russian team again on June 27 and 28. For fans in Southern California, the USA Women’s National Team will be playing exhibition matches against arch rival Brazil on the campus of UC Irvine on July 5 and at USC on July 6. Don’t miss out on these rare chances to see some of the best indoor volleyball in the world played on US soil.
All photos copyright Andy J. Gordon 2014©