The second weekend of the 2018 Nations League had the 5 set thrillers and upsets that make tournaments fun to follow. Teams that dominated the first weekend looked mortal just 5 days later (Italy and France), and teams that couldn’t keep a ball off the floor are improving fast (Canada and Serbia). Even if you couldn’t watch many games (RIP FIVB Youtube streams), this recap should give you a decent idea of the main story-lines of the weekend and allow you to follow the tournament without too much time commitment. Read this and watch a few Youtube videos and you should have a decent idea of what is happening in the tournament. Here are my thoughts on the June 1st-3rd weekend of the 2018 Men’s Nations League:
Winner of the weekend: Canada
What a turn-around for this team after a disappointing first weekend. A decisive 3-1 against an undefeated Italian team was followed up by two wins against an Argentinian team playing at home and against Iran. Getting the maximum 9 out of 9 ranking points vaulted Canada from the bottom of the standings to the top and quieted some of the anxiety that resulted from their 1-2 performance last weekend.
This was all done without team captain Gord Perrin, who will be joining the team next weekend in Ottawa. Hustle, execution, and superb play from setter TJ Sanders all helped Canada have the best weekend of any team in the tournament. Canada will try to keep the momentum going in Ottawa where they will face the USA, Germany, and Australia.
Loser of the weekend: Italy
The storybook return of Ivan Zaytsev and Osmany Juantorena to the Italian national team lasted almost a week before the cracks are starting to show. An unexpected loss to Canada seemed to reignite old feuds between players that were ignored because of the winning last weekend. Zaytsev and Juantorena were visibly annoyed at each other during that match and during a devastating 0-3 loss against Argentina on Sunday night.
While they seem friendly on social media, things will only get spicier when Filippo Lanza returns to the team. The best-case scenario for Italy was that all the players were able to put aside their pasts and focus on improving team chemistry for the Nations League and the World Championship this summer, but this weekend was not constructive for reaching that goal. While they haven’t really achieved this yet, one bad weekend does not mean the team is finished, and they are still one of the most talented teams in the tournament. A weekend at home in Modena without Zaytsev and Juantorena will be an important one to show Italian fans that the team is united.
Best Player: TJ Sanders
While the success of Canada this weekend involved contributions from 13 players and good tactical decision making from coach Stephen Antiga, the player most responsible for Canada’s fantastic play this weekend was setter TJ Sanders. He was able to find his middles aggressively, feeding them from seemingly any spot on the floor.
Graham Vigrass, who I also considered for player of the weekend, Lucas Van Berkel and Daniel Jansen Vandoorn hit a combined 47/72 (65%) on the weekend, opening single-block opportunities for Canada’s wing hitters. In addition to being one of the best defensive setters in the game, Sanders was a leader on the court, keeping Canada steady through a couple of tough 3rd set collapses. TJ Sanders may not be a household name, but if he keeps this kind of play up it won’t be long before he is accepted as one of the elite setters in international volleyball.
Runner-up: Egor Kliuka
Breakout Player: Jiang Chuan
Those of you who stuck to watching group 1 of world league last summer may have missed the brilliance of 6’9” Chinese opposite Jiang Chuan. He was the third best scorer in that tournament and he looks to improve that feat this summer against the much stronger competition. He had 79 points this weekend on 63/115 (55%) hitting following up his 56 points last weekend. The volume of scoring combined with his efficiency is especially impressive considering that the quality of sets he is receiving isn’t as high as teams with more developed passing and setting, and blockers are keying in on him on every set.
Through sheer force of will, he has dragged China to 2 wins against France and Argentina, but it seems like his talent is not enough to compensate for the rest of the Chinese team’s weaknesses. If I was an Italian, Polish, or Russian club manager thought I would be doing everything I could to muster up enough money to convince Jiang Chuan to leave China and come to play for my team for the next season. Opposites like him don’t come around that often.
Runner-up: Agustin Loser
Best Game: USA vs. Brazil
The USA men’s team, bolstered by the return of Matt Anderson, Micah Christenson, and Aaron Russell, looked like they were unstoppable in the first two sets against Brazil, winning both in convincing fashion. It looked like the Americans would cruise to their second undefeated weekend in a row, but the flustered Brazilians managed to pull it together and force a fifth set. This was where the real fun began, as Ben Patch and David Smith were subbed into the game to trade blows with the Brazilians. Speraw’s lineup change almost worked with three match point opportunities, but it the end an Isaac Santos ace ended the match 20-18 for Brazil.
The standout performers for the match were Wallace De Souza, who kept swinging for 18 kills even after a frustrating start, and the Brazilian crowd, who packed the arena in Goiania and kept the energy up for the whole match
Runner-up: Argentina vs. Italy
Games to watch next week:
June 8th: Italy vs. Poland @ 2:40 pm et
June 10th: France vs. Serbia @ noon et
June 10th: Canada vs USA @4:10 pm et