2015 World Cup Champions – USA Men’s Volleyball

Yesterday our Men’s National Team returned to the United States after a 4 week adventure in Japan.  It’s currently 4:00 AM and jet lag is in full effect.  Rather than tossing and turning I decided to roll out of bed and share our story.

On July 27th, 2015 our staff returned to our offices in Anaheim after a quick post World League break.  I could tell that our head coach John Speraw was re-energized and ready to turn our focus to the upcoming World Cup Volleyball Tournament.  It’s important to note that John and our trainer, Aaron Brock are the only two members of our staff that have gone through a World Cup Tournament; the rest of us were green horns.  It’s also important to note that the World Cup is the first Olympic Qualifier of the quad.  The top two teams qualify. Needless to say, it was go time!!

For the next 3 days we formulated our game plan for the upcoming six week training block.  It’s uncommon to get six weeks of practice at the National Team level so we needed to ensure priorities were established.  Our goal was to get better at a few important tasks. We also scheduled additional scouting meetings and gave our guys a book assignment.  Long story short, we had our plan and away we went.

The August training block was hands down our most focussed and productive block of the quad.  Going to practice every day knowing that a special opportunity was in front of us gave the entire team a boost.  Keep in mind that we are an extremely young team.  David Lee and Matt Anderson are the only athletes in our starting lineup with World Cup experience.  Furthermore, we have two starters without a single rep at the professional level.  This was going to be an enormous challenge!!!

On August 31st we flew from LAX to Tokyo.  We spent our first 5 days training at a local professional club in Mishima City.  On October 4th we traveled by bullet train to Hiroshima which is where our first matches would take place.  The World Cup is a round robin event.  There’s 12 teams and everyone plays everyone over the course of 16 days.  The general schedule is three matches in three days followed by a two day break.  At the end of the tournament the results are determined first by record, then by points and then if needed a set ratio.  Again, the top two teams qualify for Rio.

Our first three matches were Australia, Japan and then Canada.  As much as you’d like to map at substitution patterns in a tournament like this it’s simply impossible.  You just have to put your best lineup on the floor and go to work one point at a time.  We knew that our starting group would be exhausted come the end of the tournament.  We also knew that the final results could easily come down to one set or even one point.  This wasn’t the time to mess around.  Every point mattered from the first whistle.  It was time to trust our preparation both physically and mentally.

After our first three matches we were 3-0 with a set ratio of 6:1 (we dropped a set to Japan).  Next up was world power Italy who was also 3-0.  This was a completely different team than we one we saw earlier in the summer at the World League finals.  They have a new head coach, a new young setter and an experienced outside hitter from Cuba who was granted Italian citizenship prior to the event.  We went in to this match with a strong, focussed game plan. You may be asking yourself “shouldn’t all game plans be strong and focussed?” Technically yes, but some teams just end up simpler and cleaner than others.  It’s just one of the realities of having to learn 11 teams who all have unique systems and players.

Our guys were rock solid in this match, sweeping Italy 3-0.  It was perhaps our most well executed match of the tournament from a scouting standpoint.  Next up was Egypt who we also proceeded to sweep 3-0.  At this point we were 5-0 heading in to our next location in Osaka.

Next up was Venezuela, Iran and Tunisia.  We were able to win these three matches which set up the final push in Tokyo.

At this point in the tournament only the USA and Poland were perfect at 8-0.  However, Poland already had wins over both Russia and Argentina, two very good teams that we were yet to play.  Our final three matches of the tournament were Poland, Russia and Argentina. After another two day break it was game on vs. Poland.  Many people were saying “this was for all the marbles” which as you will learn was not the case.

We came out and played a flawless first set.  However, things changed quickly and our passing began to break down.  It’s crazy how a few plays can unravel a volleyball match. it’s such a fickle sport.  Poland beat the USA 3-1.  It goes without saying we were devastated. The challenge here is you don’t have time to be upset.  We had another enormous challenge in Russia the following day.  We had to pull it together emotionally and get on to the next task.

At this point Poland was 9-0 and both Italy and the USA were at 8-1.  However, we had a better set ratio which gave us possession of second place.  We were in a must win situation vs Russia.

Russia is a huge team.  They have multiple players over 7 ft tall.  They are also the 2012 Olympic Champions.  It was pretty special watching our young guys go out and sweep what is a very experienced team 3-0.  This win kept us in the mix!

Naturally, everything came down to the last day of the tournament.  The match-ups were Poland vs Italy and the USA vs Argentina.  If Poland beats Italy they are World Cup Champions at 11-0.  Furthermore, this would have locked the USA in to that second place position, securing an Olympic birth.  Italy would be in third which is a devastating finish in this tournament considering 3rd doesn’t qualify you for the Olympics.

This is where things got dramatic.  Italy beat Poland 3-1 which locked Italy in to the 2nd place position.  We were in a “win or go home” situation.  If we beat Argentina we take over 1st place and win the World Cup. Furthermore, this would bump Poland down to the third position.  If we lose to Argentina, we get third place and don’t get the bid to Rio.

Our guys were amazing.  At this point it’s so much more about hard work and emotional investment than anything else.  We were scrapping for balls, finding creative ways to get kills and serving tough all while being physically exhausted.  It was the true definition of a GRIND!  The United States beat Argentina 3-1 and won the World Cup for the first time in 30 years.  This is also the first time our Men’s National Team has qualified for the Olympic Games via the World Cup.

This was truly a special experience for everyone involved.  The biggest accomplishments in life are so often the hardest.  11 matches in 16 days with everything on the line.  Carl McGown has always told me that in order to win a Gold Medal you have to be lucky, healthy and good.  This Gold Medal was no different.  We got some help from Italy, we didn’t have any injuries and our guys were damn good.  We are the 2015 World Cup Champions!

Mike Wall – USA MNT Assistant Coach