The USA women’s national Volleyball team takes its next step on the road to Athens, Greece, on Saturday, November 1 when the World Cup begins nearly 6,000 miles away in Tokyo, Japan.
The World Cup—the first qualifier for the 2004 Olympic Games—is played in four rounds over 11 days (one game per team per day). The 12 teams in the tournament play a round-robin format in two groups, with each team playing the other 11 teams in the field one time over the course of the four rounds.
The top three teams at the World Cup earn automatic bids to next year’s Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. The final ranking is determined by the total points earned, with a win equalling two points and a loss counting as one point.
The United States is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, but the team will be missing one of its top players at least for the early-round matches. Outside hitter Keba Phipps suffered an injured eye during training in Colorado Springs earlier in the month while going up to block an attack attempt and had been unable to jump or hit in practice until joining the team in Japan earlier this week.
“I don't think she can play for a while,” admitted USA head coach Toshi Yoshida. “This is a huge problem. I thought we could manage to get some wins without Keba, but that will be extremely difficult after evaluating our performance in a practice session against NEC on Monday afternoon.”
On Monday, Team USA played NEC (Nippon Electric Corporation) of the Japanese V-League in a friendly match and lost in five sets (23-25, 25-15, 18-25, 25-19, 13-15). Last season NEC captured the V-League championship.
For the women’s tournament (Nov. 1-15), early-round matches will be played in the cities of Tokyo, Kagoshima, Nagoya, Sendai, Sapparo and Toyama, with both groups meeting in Osaka for the three-day final round.
The United States’ first match on Saturday is against Korea.
The women will then play Argentina on Sunday and defending world champion Italy on Monday to conclude the first round before the entire field takes Tuesday off for a travel day.
In the second round (Nov. 5-6) the Americans will face Egypt and Japan, while in the third round (Nov. 8-10) the United States battles Poland, Turkey and the Dominican Republic. In the fourth and final round, Team USA squares off against Brazil, China and four-time defending World Cup champion Cuba (1989, 1991, 1995 and 1999).
“The draw was not too bad; it was actually good,” said Yoshida. "However, six of our 11 matches are the first match of the day, which starts at noon or 12:30. That is not good at all. It is very difficult prepare for those matches.”
Besides having a healthy squad, Yoshida cites mental toughness and siding-out skills as the keys to success for the USA women at the first Olympic qualifier.
“All matches and all sets are going to be very tough,” he explained. “We have to have strong minds. As far as skills are concerned, our siding-out skills are crucial to give ourselves a chance to win a game.”