With only a week left in the inaugural edition of the Nations League, only a few teams have something to play for. Two of the most disappointing teams of the tournament, Italy and Serbia, will battle it out for the last spot in the final 6, while Canada or Japan would need a miracle to make it to Lillie. The rest will try their best to play spoiler and use this last chance to play against international competition before the world championships. Even if you couldn’t watch many games, this recap should give you a decent idea of the main storylines 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 15th-17th weekend of the 2018 Men’s Nations League:
Winner of the weekend: USA
Want to know what’s better than sweeping one of the toughest pools of the tournament so far without dropping a set? Doing so in front of friends, family, and tons of fans at home. When you look at the talent of the USA team on paper and the clubs they play on, this is the kind of performance that you would hope they live up to. Amazing play from nearly the entire cast of USA volleyball made sure that games against Iran, Poland, and Serbia were ended quickly and efficiently.
The height and athleticism of the team really shined in Hoffman Estates. There were no weak blockers for opponents to exploit, and the American attackers were almost impossible to stop when Micah had all his hitters available. This video gives a great angle of how fast and deadly the offense was this weekend. Unfortunately, the Thomas Jaeschke injury leaves a bitter aftertaste on the weekend, but if there is any team that can afford to lose an outside hitter, it is the USA.
Loser of the Weekend: Poland
It was a tough pick between Brazil and Poland, as both teams went 0-3 against rivals, but Poland gets the slight nod here because they failed to win even one set. If I were making excuses, I would say that they were missing a couple key players, most importantly Michal Kubiak who is out for the tournament with an eye infection, and libero Pawel Zatorski, but the team they brought should never have done this poorly. Despite With a rotating cast of players to chose from each week, Coach Vital Heynen finally stumbled upon a lineup that couldn’t win games.
Their biggest issue this weekend was poor reception. This made it difficult for Poland to run its offense, and the normally productive middles didn’t attempt more than 20 attacks in any of Poland’s matches. This creates a ripple effect where your wing spikers face much tighter blocks, a frustrating scenario for a team that relies on creating single block scenarios. They are not in danger of missing the final 6, but this weekend put a damper on an otherwise ideal nations league.
Best Player: Matt Anderson
This award could have gone to several American players, as almost all of them had an amazing weekend. Max Holt, Micah Christenson, Aaron Russell, and Erik Shoji really worked together to give the USA a perfect weekend. But among them, Matt Anderson stands out as the one that most positively impacted the team. His serve put a ton of pressure on opponents, scoring aces 6 times on 43 serving attempts on the weekend. He also is producing an eye-popping statistical performance, 4th overall in reception in the tournament at 43.6%, and 4th among wing spikers in kill percentage at 54.8% (courtesy Mark Lebedew).
A lot of his attacks are coming from the back row, where he and Micah are running lightning-quick balls that Anderson comfortably puts away before opponents can even react. Another underrated part of his game is how his level-headed demeanor calms down some of the fierier personalities on the USA, such as Micah Christenson and Max Holt. He will be instrumental to the American’s success in the final 6.
Runner-up: Jenia Grebennikov
Breakout Player: Luke Perry
While Grebennikov and Shoji might be the biggest names at the libero position, someone to keep an eye on is 22-year-old Australian Luke Perry. Not only does he fortify the Australian receiving line with his 33% passing efficiency, he is extremely effective at keeping rallies alive with quick reads and reactions.
Perry is also a great setter in a pinch and is consistently able to set 2 or more options from setter digs. His mature presence helped lift Australia to a 3-0 record this weekend, including a shocking 3-1 win against Italy. It is rare to have a libero with his combination of motor and technical skills, and he will only continue to get better as he gains more confidence.
Runner-up: Jean Patry
Best Game: Serbia vs. Iran
Most of the games being played in the Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates weren’t particularly close, but in a 5-setter between Iran and Serbia, fans got their money’s worth. There were a few elements to this game that made it a blast to watch. The first was a dominant performance by Aleksander Atanasijevic. He had 32 points on efficient and emphatic hitting and wasn’t afraid to let Iran know how unstoppable he was. It reminded me of his performances in Perugia where his confidence and momentum were impossible to stop.
On the other side of the net, setter Marouf slowly melted down throughout the duration of the match. He has always had a fiery temper but watching him jaw with Serbian players and sometimes even his own teammates were frustrating to watch. On the bright side for Iran, they were basically playing a home game in Chicago, as 99% of the crowd seemed to be actively cheering for Iran. Serbia did well to get the win this game as a loss would have put their final 6 positions in jeopardy. They have now won their 4th 5 set game in a row.
Runner-up: Australia vs Italy
Games to watch next week:
June 22nd: Canada vs Serbia @4am et
June 23rd: USA vs Russia @11:30am et
June 24th: France vs Russia @11:30am et