Puerto Rico: “Soto-Man” makes experience count
At the 2006 World Championships in Japan, Soto became the best scorer of the entire tournament, ahead of all the international stars, despite Puerto Rico's status as underdogs. The Japanese media went on to call him “Soto-Man”, in reference to Superman. Puerto Rico finished the tournament at a respectable twelfth place - their best result in the four world championships they have taken part in to date. Four years later, Puerto Rico finished 13th. This time around, however, they will find it extremely difficult to make it through the first round.
Group D will be very competitive. Puerto Rico will take on FIVB World League winners the United States, Italy and Iran - three of the best four teams in the FIVB World League which ended recently – as well as France and Belgium. “We have to go out and battle. We will try to win two or three games to qualify for the next round,” Soto commented. In preparation for the FIVB World Championships, Puerto Rico will take part in the Pan American Cup from August 9-17 in Mexico.
After Puerto Rico surprisingly missed out on qualifying directly for the world championship, there was huge relief among the enthusiastic fans back in Carolina and naturally also among the players when the team qualified via the NORCECA playoff. Maurice Torres was the top scorer for Puerto Rico with 18 points, including one block and two aces, followed by Ezequiel Cruz, who finished with two blocks and one ace among his 14 points. Maurice Torres of Puerto Rico was awarded MVP. Alongside Torres, Puerto Rico's Best Forwards, Ezequiel Cruz and Hector "Picky" Soto, and the Best Receiver Dennis Del Valle were nominated for the All Star team.
“We achieved our goal and I am really pleased with the result, we are now in the world championship,” said an elated David Aleman, coach of Puerto Rico. “The team never lost focus and followed the tactical plan we discussed in the morning meeting. Now we have to start working for the event in Poland.”
“Soto-Man” also sees a lot of work ahead: "We still have to work hard. We continue with many ups and downs, but a positive from this tournament, despite the level being slightly lower, was the small number of mistakes we made. It is something that we have worked on in this tournament and we did well. I hope that helps us continue to raise our level."
Puerto Rico's women's team had already qualified for the FIVB World Championships when the men defeated the Dominican Republic at the NORCECA playoff – which sees the country field teams from both genders at the World Championships for the third time in a row. Last year at the NORCECA Championships, the women finished in third place and the men narrowly missed out on bronze, finishing fourth after losing to Cuba in five sets. This is a clear indication of just how competitive the two national teams in the volleyball-minded country are. The scouts at top club teams around the world have had their eye on the powerful players from Puerto Rico for a while now. Soto, for example, has already played in Belgium, Italy, Japan, Russia, South Korea and Turkey. Female role model Aury Cruz plays her volleyball at Rabita Baku, the former Club World Champions and this year’s bronze medalists in the European Champions League.
The FIVB World Grand Prix will be a key instrument in preparations for the FIVB Women’s World Championship. In the preliminary round, Puerto Rico face Poland, Peru, the Netherlands, Argentina, Canada, and their opponents in the first round of the World Championship Cuba and Belgium.