For those of you new to these 2018 Men’s Nations League previews, this will give you a better idea of the teams that you’re unfamiliar with and will allow you to follow the tournament more easily. The format consists of 5 weekends of round-robin play starting tomorrow taking place in different locations around the world followed by a final round in Lille, France on July 4-8th.
I’ll be doing the previews in reverse order of my own personal, unofficial power rankings. Feel free to let me know why your team is too low.
Despite men’s volleyball being a niche sport in America, especially compared to a lot of the other countries at this level, they have once again managed to assemble an elite team, with player hailing from basically just California, Illinois, and Hawaii. All of their starters, and some of their bench players, get paid well to play at top clubs in Italy and Russia. However, that hasn’t translated to many medals on the international stage for this group yet. Can this be the summer that it finally comes together for them?
On the wings, Taylor Sander and Aaron Russell are both at the top of their position. Sander is probably the most devastating back row attacker in the world when he is getting sets from Micah Christenson, and Russell has unnatural dexterity for someone of his size. Unfortunately for Russell, he has sustained a lot of nagging injuries in a grueling club season in Perugia, and will likely be sitting quite a bit so he is ready for the final round of nations league and the world championships in September. USA has a couple great options in his place though. Thomas Jaeschke just keeps getting better and better and would be a starter on every other team except for France and Serbia. TJ DeFalco looked like a man amongst boys in his most recent college season with Long Beach State. Russell could sit the first few weeks and they wouldn’t miss him too much.
Opposite will be an interesting position for the US team as well . Obviously, Matt Anderson is their preferred starter, but he looked like a better passer than attacker in his most recent season with Zenit Kazan and likely won’t be travelling with the team until their game on home soil. Ben Patch, who left BYU a year early to start his pro career, probably didn’t have the first season he was envisioning. He was frequently benched, only had a 24% hitting efficiency, and looked terrified every time he had to serve. He played well with team USA last summer, so we will see if his poor play was just a result of getting used to playing overseas. If he continues to struggle, TJ Defalco’s teammate Kyle Ensing will get some chances to prove himself. We might see him as early as the first weekend, where he is traveling with the team to Ningbo.
The other positions aren’t as exciting. Micah Christenson and Erik Shoji are among the best at their position. The three-man middle rotation of Max Holt, David Smith, and Jeffrey Jendryk will feast on slower middles and are some of the team’s best servers.
Will this be the year that this team finally lives up to their potential? They are tall, athletic, and skilled, but the results of the last couple years haven’t reflected their talent. Bronze in 2016 and 4th place last world league, while great results are probably not what the players on this team envision they are capable of. Definite medal favorite (USA spelling just for you guys) at both the nations league and the world championship if Matt Anderson is playing.
Likely starters (players to watch in italics):
OH: Taylor Sander (Civitanova)
OH: Aaron Russell (Perugia)
OP: Matt Anderson (Zenit Kazan)
MB: Max Holt (Modena)
MB: David Smith (Aluron Virtu)
S: Micah Christenson (Civitanova)
L: Erik Shoji (Latina)