RIO DE JANEIRO – Four years ago in London, Matt Anderson was the youngest player on the U.S. men’s Olympic volleyball team. Before this year’s Games, Anderson said he needed to be a veteran leader, someone the younger players could look to for guidance in a crisis.
Well, the West Seneca native was true to his word Thursday night, putting on an inspired performance as the Americans, in desperate shape after losing their first two games in the tournament, stunned favorite Brazil on its home turf Thursday night by a score of 25-20, 25-23, 20-25, 25-20.
Anderson looked the part of the best player in the world, making critical spikes at key junctures, setting the tone early with effective serving and setting the emotional tone for his younger teammate in an exhilarating match at Maracanazinho Arena.
So the U.S., which staggered into the match at 0-2 after an upset loss to Canada and a defeat at the hands of Italy, greatly improved its chances of getting out of pool play and asserted itself as a genuine medal contender.
“Early in this tournament, our aggressivenss, our fierceness, our refusing to lose attitude was lacking,” Anderson said. “It started to come around in the second match. That’s how we play, that’s how we win, and that’s how we develop our strategies and our team values.”
The U.S. was guilty of many fundamental errors in its first two matches, including some dreadful serving. Captain David Lee said the younger players were pressing because they didn’t want to let the older players down. He admitted that the new guys were “kind of crushed” at that point.
So Brazil wasn’t an ideal opponent in a crisis. They’re the home team and Olympic favorite. Their fans, the most exuberant in the sport, were relishing a chance to beat the nation that dominates the medal count at the Summer Games.
But the Americans responded and looked like the team that won its first World Cup in 30 years last season, playing with skill and resolve to take the first set and silence the enthusiastic home crowd.
“Brazil’s awesome,” Anderson said. “It’s always awesome to play here. Even when they’re booing, it means they’re engaging and enjoying the game. I tell you, when you’re playing against a crowd with 95 percent of them aggainst you, when you can get them to be quiet, it’s a hell of a feeling.”
They took the first set, quieting the loud and partisan home crowd. Brazil surged into the lead in the second set, but the U.S. kept plugging away, with Anderson seemingly making a big spike very time his team needed one.
After Brazil took a 22-20 lead, the Americans rallied to take five of the last six points to put themselves one set from a huge win.
Brazil wasn’t going to go easily in front of its home fans, however. With the crowd roaring at every point, the host team bounced back to take the third set and the momentum, 25-20.
But the U.S. responded. They surged to a 6-2 lead in the fourth and held on. Anderson led the way again. He spiked for a point early in the set and walked away defiantly, as if to say, “We’re not letting this one get away.”
“We want to win every set, 25-0,” he said. “So to give any team breath, any team an opportunity to come back, it’s not in our mindset.”
On the next point, Anderson slid out of bounds to keep a point alive that the Americans won. He was on the ground a lot, perhaps more than any player, which showed how desperately he wanted to lead his team out of a discouraging early Olympic hole.
Aaron Russell, 23, like Anderson a Penn State graduate, had another sensational match in his Olympic debut. Russell was solid at the net all night and made several key spikes in the decisive fourth set.
The U.S. isn’t out of the woods yet. They’re 1-2 in pool play and tied with Canada, which has beaten them already. But if they beat France on Saturday and then winless Mexico next Monday, they move on to the quarterfinals.
Italy, which beat Mexico on Thursday, is 3-0 and through to the knockout round. France is 2-1, but has the U.S. and Brazil left. Canada has Mexico and Italy, so has a good chance to get a second win.
But they wouldn’t beat the U.S. on head-to-head in the event of a tie. Winning set percentage is the key tiebreaker, So every set matters from here on, and the Americans now look capable of making a big run.
“When we can play like that, it’s so much more fun,” Anderson said. “I mean, it’s emotionally draining, but it’s so much more fun. Even when we don’t win, it’s volleyball we’re proud to play and be a part of.”