Monday, July 11, 2016

National Team | Can Bangkok silver lead to Rio Gold?

USA drops World Grand Prix gold medal match to Brazil as USA prepares to name its Rio roster; four players—including Courtney Thompson—in the running for the final two roster spots

  • June 10 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Germany 3-0 (25-15, 25-17, 25-12)
  • June 11 | Ningbo, China | USA def. Thailand 3-0 (25-21, 29-27, 25-23)
  • June 12 | Ningbo, China | China def. USA 3-1 (25-20, 25-19, 15-25, 25-23)
  • June 17 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Germany 3-1 (25-17. 24-26, 25-10, 25-23)
  • June 18 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Japan 3-0 (25-16, 25-23, 25-21)
  • June 19 | Long Beach, CA | USA def. Turkey 3-0 (25-21, 25-20, 25-16)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA def. Germany 3-0 (25-19, 25-22, 30-28)
  • June 24 | Hong Kong | USA def. Netherlands 3-1 (26-24, 19-25, 25-17, 25-20)
  • June 26 | Hong Kong | USA def. China 3-0 (25-19, 25-21, 25-17)
  • July 6 | Bangkok | USA def. Netherlands 3-0 (25-21, 25-17, 25-23)
  • July 8 | Bangkok | USA def. China 3-0 (25-21, 26-24, 25-22)
  • July 9 | Bangkok | USA def. Russia 3-0 (25-20, 25-23, 25-14)
  • July 10 | Bangkok | Brazil def. USA 3-2 (18-25, 25-17, 25-23, 22-25, 15-9)

USA middle Foluke Akinradewo attacks over Brazil's FeGaray in the 2016 World Grand Prix Finals.
-photo by FIVB

Finally, the wait is almost over.

After finishing 11-2 to earn the silver medal in the annual World Grand Prix, the USA Women’s National Team seems to have all but two slots on its Olympic roster filled. Setter Courtney Thompson—a 2012 London Olympian and former Washington All-American—appears to be among four players competing for those last two roster spots. Head coach Karch Kiraly has until Sunday to announce his Olympic team, but the decision may come as early as tomorrow.

Here are the ten who seem to be locks:
  • OUTSIDE HITTERS: Jordan Larson (Nebraska), Kim Hill (Pepperdine), Kelsey Robinson (Tennessee/Nebraska)
  • MIDDLE BLOCKERS: Foluke Akinradewo (Stanford), Rachael Adams (Texas), Christa Dietzen (Penn State)
  • OPPOSITES: Karsta Lowe (UCLA), Kelly Murphy (Florida)
  • SETTERS: Alicia Glass (Penn State)
  • LIBEROS: Kayla Banwarth (Nebraska)

At least one of the two remaining players will be a setter, either Thompson or Cal alum Carli Lloyd. Lloyd struggled with injuries for most of the quad, and didn’t get her first significant playing time with the first team until the World Grand Prix. Most of her action was in the double-substitution, when a setter and opposite rotate in for three service rotations roughly two-thirds the way through a set, allowing USA to go nine straight rotations with three front-row hitters. Lloyd performed respectably, even as her serving was erratic and her sets to the outside were often higher and slower than USA has been running this quad.

Thompson saw very little action in the Grand Prix, though the fact that Kiraly kept her on the roster may be telling. Starting setter Glass had injury issues of her own last year, and Lloyd may have been auditioning in case Glass was unavailable for Rio. Glass, however, seemed in good shape, even if she, too, is a mediocre server and had a poor blocking performance against Brazil in the World Grand Prix Finals.

At age 31, Thompson is the oldest player still on the roster, and has been the heart and soul of the USA squad for the past four years. In a sport where the smallest things make the difference when top teams square off in major competitions, Thompson’s ability to keep the team fired up and engaged could make the difference in Rio. Her most recent professional season was with Rio’s top team, where her height (5-8) was no real disadvantage. See: An American Olympian Prepares, on the Enemy’s Turf (New York Times)

After either Thompson or Lloyd fill the second setter spot, Kiraly will be faced with three choices: take a third setter, take a second libero or take a fourth outside hitter.

We already know that USA will only take two opposites—Lowe and Murphy—after veteran Nicole Fawcett (Penn State) was cut two weeks ago (a crushing blow that Fawcett handled with incredible grace.) In the middle, Rachael Adams has performed so well that there is no talk at all about bringing a fourth MB.

In many ways, the decision depends on libero Kayla Banwarth’s health. Banwarth was injured during the Grand Prix—reportedly a concussion—but her replacement, USC alum Natalie Hagglund, struggled mightily with her serve receive. By Saturday, Banwarth was back and looking like her old self, but question marks inevitably remain.

If Hagglund does not make the roster, then Robinson could be called upon to wear the libero jersey in a pinch. That, however, might leave USA exposed if only Larson and Hill were left at OH. In that scenario, Kiraly might spend a few minutes considering Michelle Bartsch (Illinois) for the final roster spot. Bartsch, like Lloyd, has not seen first-team court time until this year’s Grand Prix, though she did well during her limited play over the weekend.

Finally, it’s possible that Kiraly could take three setters—unusual, but not unprecedented. The double-substitution has been a mainstay of the USA offense for at least six years, but it depends on having at least two healthy setters on the roster. If Glass went down with an injury in Rio, it would be mighty tough for either Thompson or Lloyd to win gold on their own. But together, they just might do it.

Brazilian players celebrate their 3-2 win over USA to take the 2016 World Grand Prix gold medal in Bangkok.
-photo by FIVB

  • Throughout the quad, Kiraly had one player in his gym who could fill in at every position except middle—Stanford alum Cassidy Lichtman. Lichtman, however, was cut two weeks ago, and—like Fawcett—was an absolute class act on the way out. Look for Lichtman on the sidelines next season as a Stanford assistant.
  • In Bangkok, Brazil’s post-match celebration induced a queasy déjà vu for USA fans. No one celebrates a victory quite as wildly as the Brazilians, and it was something USA was forced to watch after losing the gold medal matches in both the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2012 London Games.
  • Only four players from the 2012 London roster remain in contention for Rio: Thompson, Larson, Akinradewo and Dietzen. None of those players were on the 2008 team.
  • In the World Grand Prix gold medal match, USA’s serving—usually a strength—was its most glaring weakness. Except for Hill, most of the lineup struggled, even the usually-reliable Akinradewo and Adams. By the fifth set, USA was serving lollipops, which Brazilian setter Dani Lins happily turned into quick kills through her middles.
  • For some reason, Kiraly started Glass on the front row against Brazil. On the one hand, it allowed Kiraly to have Akinradewo absolutely school Fe Garay on slides. But Brazil’s outsides feasted on Glass’s blocking. To make it worse, Glass seemed reluctant to set Murphy in the back row.
  • Before anyone reads too much from the World Grand Prix results, know that—in Olympic years—coaches use the Grand Prix to experiment (like starting Glass in the front row.) Serbia did not qualify for the WGP Final round, but should be a force in Rio. And China left most of its stars—and head coach Jenny Lang Ping—at home for the Final Round, after hosting the first three rounds in its own time zone. USA, by contrast, had to make three grueling cross-Pacific round trips in five weeks.

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