Watching Russia rally from match point with a two-set deficit to beat the United States men's volleyball team looked like a crushing blow to America's hopes to repeat as Olympic volleyball gold medalists.
The rest of the world better not write off the U.S. men's volleyball team that easily. Their performance against the top two teams in the world proves that this team is still on par with the sport's elite.
America entered the London Olympics ranked fifth in the world. The defending gold medalists from Beijing and the 2012 World League runner-ups then drew into the proverbial group of death.
Top-ranked Brazil and second-ranked Russia came in as the favorites to win the group. Brazil lost to the Americans in the 2008 gold-medal final before beating them in last year's World Cup en route to a championship. Russia took bronze in Beijing after losing to the U.S. 3-2 in the semifinals.
The United States dominated its first three matches of the 2012 London Games. It swept past No. 7 Serbia and No. 10 Germany with decisive 3-0 victories before upsetting Brazil 3-1. The Americans were one point away from sweeping Russia to clinch the group title before dropping three consecutive points and the next two sets.
A collapse like that gives Russia tremendous momentum heading into the final day of group play. The rally will likely linger in everyone's minds if the U.S. faces them again in the knockout rounds.
It's hard not to focus on the bitter taste left over from that most recent result, but the team needs to be applauded for what it accomplished before failing to finish for a group win.
A No. 5 world ranking notes that the U.S. men aren't considered among the favorites to medal in London. But their play so far suggests that they never got that memo. America stood one point away from upsetting the world's top two teams with only one set lost through its first four matches.
The U.S. now gets a chance to regroup from the Russian rally with its final group match against No. 20 Tunisia. Then it's off to the elimination rounds where the Americans carry the advantage of already seeing and playing well against the top teams.
Choking against Russia may create some doubt among the U.S. men, but their play in their first seven sets against Brazil and Russia should instead create supreme confidence in their chances to medal.
The Americans returned six players from their gold-medal run in Beijing.
Rookie Olympian Matt Anderson led the team with 18 points against both Serbia and Russia. He also scored 15 against Germany, just one point behind Clay Stanley's team-leading 16. Stanley also led the team with 19 points against Brazil.
This combined production from both rising stars and proven veteran leaders is exactly what the U.S. needs to defend its gold medal.
Team USA held advantages in kills (57-56), blocks (6-2), aces (9-5) and digs (39-31) against Brazil. The numbers show that beating the world's top-ranked team was no fluke. While the collapse against Russia is concerning, playing within one point of sweeping the No. 2 team is a feat that needs to draw similar respect.
If the U.S. men can regroup mentally from its recent defeat, they have what it takes physically to hang another gold medal around their necks.
Like the new article format? Send us feedback!