[Editor’s note: Off the Block is partnering with Ball State at the Games to provide the volleyball community with in-depth coverage of the U.S. Men’s National Team as it competes for an Olympic gold medal.]
Robby General | Ball State at the Games
Rio de Janeiro – Beginning pool-play with two losses wasn’t the way the United States wanted to start the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Looking back, though, outside attacker and four-time U.S. Olympian Reid Priddy said being put into that situation is what they needed to respond.
“I think that’s where we need to be: with our backs against the wall,” Priddy said. “We’re not a front-runner, and I don’t think that we’re good enough yet being a front-runner.
“Being the underdog has brought out the best volleyball we have seen in this group.”
Since its two-match losing streak the United States hasn’t lost an Olympic match, bringing them into contention for a potential quarterfinals berth entering the final day of pool-play on Monday. The United States (2-2, 6 points Pool A) in its last two matches defeated both host-country Brazil and France in four sets.
With back-to-back victories, it is one of four teams — United States, Brazil, France and Canada — tied with six points in Pool A. Besides the Pool A champions Italy (4-0, 12 points Pool A), no other Pool A team has clinched one three remaining quarterfinals berth to create a near must-win situation in the pool-play finale for the four teams tied for second place.
The criteria used to determine the four teams in each pool that advance to the quarterfinals is based on match victories. In addition, the tiebreakers are match points, set won-loss ration, point differential and head-to-head competition.
While there is a possibility that the United States can advance with a loss in their final pool-play match, coach John Speraw is concerned about one thing — winning.
“It doesn’t even really benefit us to look ahead [to the quarterfinals],” Speraw said. “We know that if we win, we’re in. So we just have to get a win.”
Mexico (0-4, 0 points Pool A) is one of two winless teams in the 12-team tournament, but that hasn’t changed the United States mindset entering the match.
There are four teams the United States haven’t played in this quadrennial prior to the Olympic Games, with one of those teams being Mexico.
“We’re familiar with them, but we don’t play them too often,” libero Erik Shoji said. “They have nothing to lose. They haven’t had a win yet, and playing against us is always a big game for them. They’re going to go all out so we have to be ready for them.”
With one day off between matches at the Olympics, having familiarity with its opponents has been one advantage for the United States.
“It’s a huge thing to know those teams because we don’t have that much time [to prepare],” Shoji said. “This tournament is always a little bit different, and even playing overseas against some of these people, you learn about them. … You know when you don’t know the game plan or something, it’s nice to go back to something you already know.”
Unlike the Olympic tournament, teams typically play on back-to-back nights in FIVB World League play.
While there is more time off in between matches, Speraw said this year’s Olympics has been one of the most mentally taxing tournaments for him, and the single-elimination stage hasn’t even started yet.
“I don’t remember the emotional taxation from the previous Olympics,” Speraw, an U.S. assistant coach in 2008 and 2012 Olympics, said. “This [tournament] has been really emotionally draining, and so I’ve been concerned about that with the team. … I’ve never seen players exert as much competitive energy in any volleyball match I’ve seen in my entire life. And this has happened not in the playoffs but every single pool-play match.”
The United States will play Mexico at 9:35 a.m. (CST) Monday. The other Pool A pool-play finale matches will be Italy versus Canada (2-2, 6 points Pool A) and Brazil (2-2, 6 points Pool A) playing host to France (2-2, 6 points A).
Robby General is a Ball State University student and writer for BSU at the Games, a group of 50 journalism students traveling from Muncie, Indiana, to Rio for the Olympic Games. Follow them at bsuatthegames.com, @bsuatthegames on Twitter and Instagram, and BSU at the Games on Facebook.