VOLLEYBALL: U.S. squeezes by Bulgaria, qualifies for Tokyo 2020 on women’s qualification weekend

U.S. women's team celebrates a tough win vs. Bulgaria in 2020 Olympic qualifying play (Photo: FIVB)

There were six winners in six countries who punched their tickets for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Volleyball tourney on Sunday, but only one had a tougher path than the United States.

Playing in Bossier City, Louisiana – near Shreveport – the U.S. cruised to a 3-0 win over Kazakhstan on Friday, then faced Bulgaria on Saturday and immediately had to play from behind, losing the first set, 25-21.

The U.S. tied it with a 25-18 second-set win, then fell behind again by losing the third set, again by 25-21. Good hitting and solid blocking at the net brought the U.S. even with a 25-20 win in set four and the same qualities led to a 15-10 win in the final set.

“I got to give Bulgaria a lot of credit,” said U.S. coach Karch Kiraly. “They played a great game. Number 16 [Elitsa Vasileva] was all we could handle and more. We knew she was good, she had a very strong match. It took a while for us to get going. But Jordan Thompson came in and gave us a lift, and so did Kelsey Robinson. Eventually we started figuring things out. It was pretty rough, and we got pushed to the brink and I loved the response that our team had down 2-1.”

U.S. outside hitter Jordan Larson had a team-high 23 points on 18 kills, three blocks and two aces. Opposite Jordan Thompson had 19 points and outside hitter Kim Hill added 17. “It was amazing,” said Larson afterwards. “I am still trying to catch my breath and take it all in. It was a stressful match. There was a lot riding on the line. It was important for us to take away the win.”

Vasileva led all scorers with 24 points, on 22 kills and two blocks.

The American women, winners of the FIVB Nations League this season, had no trouble sweeping Argentina on Sunday, 3-0, to secure their 11th Olympic women’s appearance.

Only Italy had a perfect record on the weekend, recording three straight sweeps in Pool F, and Serbia (Pool A) and China (Pool B) both won nine of 10 sets. Brazil had the hardest time of all the qualifiers, forced to five sets by both Azerbaijan and the Dominican Republic.

But for Serbia, China, the U.S., Brazil, Russia and Italy, the wait is over and they are in, along with host Japan. There will be continental qualifying tournaments in 2020 to complete the 12-team field. Summaries:

FIVB Olympic Qualification Pools
Six locations ~ 2-4 August 2019
(Full results here)

Pool A ~ Wroclaw (POL):
● 1. Serbia (3-0); 2. Poland (2-1); 3. Thailand (1-2); 4. Puerto Rico (0-3).

Pool B ~ Ningbo (CHN):
● 1. China (3-0); 2. Turkey (2-1); 3. Germany (1-2); 4. Czech Rep. (0-3).

Pool C ~ Shreveport (USA):
● 1. United States (3-0); 2. Bulgaria (2-1); 3. Argentina (1-2); 4. Kazakhstan (0-3).

Pool D ~ Uberlandia (BRA):
● 1. Brazil (3-0); 2. Dom. Rep. (2-1); 3. Azerbaijan (1-2); 4. Cameroon (0-3).

Pool E ~ Kaliningrad (RUS)
● 1. Russia (3-0); 2. South Korea (2-1); 3. Canada (1-2); 4. Mexico (0-3).

Pool F ~ Catania (ITA):
● 1. Italy (3-0); 2. Netherlands (2-1); 3. Belgium (1-2); 4. Kenya (0-3).