Pool A of the Olympics men’s volleyball tournament is set for a fascinating denouement with four teams tied for second on six points each. It is delicately poised as only three can progress to the quarter-finals, but the USA – who looked down and out a few days ago – will be confident of their chances of going forwards in the tournament after staging a remarkable comeback in Rio de Janeiro.
USA went into this tournament as world champions, having finished ahead of Italy to win the 2015 World Cup with 10 victories and only one defeat. But they have sent a young squad to Rio, featuring eight first time Olympians alongside three veterans, and started as +600 fifth favorites with Bovada, behind hosts and favorites Brazil, France, Italy, and Russia. That makes sense as they are the fifth ranked team in the world by the FIVB, but they went into this Olympics tournament in good form and must have been quietly confident of at least making the podium. Team USA won gold at Beijing in 2008 but failed to win a medal in London 2012 and the tournament has come at a crucial time for the sport in the US, where it needs to attract youngsters to ensure it will continue to thrive.
The inexperienced team got off to the worst possible start. They faced neighbors Canada, tenth in the world but +10000 outsiders to win the tournament, and it should have been a comfortable victory. Instead, they were swept aside by a hungrier and better-drilled team. It was a huge upset, but Canada's victory was comprehensive: a straight sets 25-23, 25-17, 25-23 win. It was the Canadian team's first appearance at the Olympics in 24 years, but they played with a level of aggression that stunned Team USA, who made 10 service faults in the first set and collapsed late in the second and were overwhelmed in the third.
Their next match was against a trickier opponent in Italy, bronze medallists in 2012, ranked fourth in the world and third favorites to win the tournament behind Brazil and France. They gave a better account of themselves and it was a close fought match but USA still succumbed to a 3-1 defeat.
Things were looking pretty dire: they wereat the bottom of Pool A on zero points and in desperate need of a win as only four of six teams from each pool qualify for the quarter-finals. They couldn't have picked a worse opponent to face in the crunch game. Brazil is the hosts, world number one, top seeds and +150 favorites to win gold. But desperation is a powerful tool and they took it to the Brazilians in front of their home fans. Team USA came away with a phenomenal 3-1 victory after storming out to win the first two sets. Matt Anderson, MVP at the World Cup, was back to his best, starting with 24 points, and the USA silenced the crowd.
They continued the good work by beating France, another team ranked higher than USA by Bovada, in their fourth preliminary game. It was a thrilling 25-22, 25-22, 24-25, 25-22 and suddenly they are right back in this tournament. All that stands between them and the quarter-finals is a Mexican side that has lost all four games and is bottom of Pool A on zero points (Italy top it on 12 points, then comes France, Canada, Brazil and the USA, all on six points). The USA are technically fifth on point difference, but because Brazil and France have to play one another, they are guaranteed to finish above the loser if they beat Mexico.
That should not be too onerous a task. Mexico is the lowest ranked team at the tournament and were rank outsiders at +10000 Betting Odds at the start of the tournament. They have lived up to that billing by taking only a single set from four matches at the Olympics and they have nothing left to play for but pride as they cannot make the knockout stage of the tournament. As for this Free Pick, USA should beat them 3-0 and progress to the knockout round, where they look a great bet for the gold given their recent resurgence. Italy and Argentina have been the best teams so far, while favorites Brazil and France have struggled, but the USA will fear no-one now that Anderson has found his form and they are oozing such confidence and desire.