Reigning champions Russia take on USA and France in Pool A
Chicago, USA, July 9, 2019 – The FIVB Volleyball Nations League Finals has an intriguing three-team Pool A that starts on Wednesday in Chicago.
Russia finished the 2019 VNL preliminary round in third place with a 12-3 record, losing only road matches to Brazil and Iran along with France in the season-opener on a neutral court. Russia defeated VNL Finals participants Poland (3-1) and USA (3-0) in the preliminaries.
Although Russia is the defending champion, their head coach feels that is past history.
“I don’t think we thought about last year’s title,” Russia head coach Tuomas Sammelvuo said. “Every season has its history, and every team has its own history. Two different things. We are very happy and excited to be here in 2019.”
Russia’s path has covered many miles en route to Chicago and the VNL Finals and having a chance to win the second VNL.
“Our journey to the Finals Week has been very interesting,” Tuomas said. “We have traveled probably more than any other team in this VNL. I am very happy that we made it here. Our team has improved during the League. I am also very happy because we have some players who have never played in our National Team, so this is a great thing to be here.”
Host USA has exhibited its depth during the VNL preliminary round as it used many younger athletes at various times during the five-week period. The Americans started the VNL with a 1-4 record with losses to Brazil, Poland and Russia, but caught fire late by winning their final four matches. With a 9-6 preliminary round record, the USA finished among the top six of the standings.
USA's Thomas Jaeschke (17) celebrates a point with teammates during a match between USA and Japan in Hoffman Estates
USA captain Taylor Sander said that even though the USA had a berth in the VNL Finals already secured as the host country, the team’s goal from the start was to finish in the top six and qualify as if it had not had the direct route to the Finals.
“It was our goal,” Sander said of having a record that would qualify USA into VNL Finals without the host spot. “The VNL is a very tough tournament. We had a lot of younger guys out there and I feel like we got better throughout the VNL. We started kind of rough, guys got more experienced, got more comfortable out on the court. We were able to get some big wins and qualify on our own, which is important. That was our goal at the start of VNL.”
Sander said it is special for USA to host an elite tournament on home soil.
“It is very special,” Taylor said. “Not too often we get to play at home, especially in a tournament of this caliber. For us to have our family, friends and our home crowd watching the game of volleyball here in the United States is great. We are excited.”
“The opportunity to come in here and compete against great teams like this is going to fun for the fans,” USA head coach John Speraw said. “It is really exciting. Honestly, it is good for us as in development as a team moving forward.”
France concluded the 2019 VNL preliminary phase with an 11-4 record and in fourth place. The French started the VNL with a 5-0 mark including wins over VNL Finals Round opponents Russia and Poland. France also swept host Iran to conclude week four.
“For us it was a very nice surprise (to qualify for the VNL Finals) because the very beginning of the VNL was tough,” France head coach Laurent Tillie said. “We decided to make a turnover of players and give some rest to the players and try new players. We played well in the beginning with all these changes. So we are arriving in Chicago with spirits high knowing we have the two best teams in our group in USA and Russia.”
France captain Benjamin Toniutti says Pool A presents many challenges in facing the host USA and defending VNL champions Russia. At the same time, he notes there are no favorites to win the second-year VNL.
“I think there is no favorite in this Final Six because all the teams are really good and strong,” Toniutti said. “Also, a lot of teams changed players in the first round. For sure we have a difficult group with USA, they play at home, and Russia won the previous edition. We will play our best.”
France play Finals hosts USA in the second match on Wednesday
Toniutti said France is not seeing the Pool A match up with Russia being any more of a motivation because of the results in the 2018 VNL Finals gold-medal match.
“It is a new game, new competition, new year,” Toniutti said. “It is a totally different game. Russia changed a lot of players from last year, so it will be a new game. We do not think about the game from last year.”
Tillie said the VNL Finals also is a great means to prepare for its upcoming Olympic qualification matches Aug. 9-11.
“The VNL is important for us to have the opportunity to face very good teams in USA and Russia,” Tillie said. ‘To me it is the best thing to prepare for Olympic qualification. We have tried to have our best team here in the VNL Finals because the more you play, the better you become.”