When you have rivals in sports, you want to win a little more when you play them, whether it’s a preseason contest or Game 7 of the World Series.
In international volleyball, Brazil is one of the rivals for the United States women’s national team. Fans in Lincoln will get the treat, watching the teams face off Thursday to end the Americans’ three-match stop in the United States for the FIVB Volleyball Nations League tournament.
The 7:30 p.m. match at Pinnacle Bank Arena will pit two of the top four teams in the world rankings, with No. 3 USA taking on No. 4 Brazil. The match is expected to draw the largest crowd of the three days in Lincoln, but several thousand tickets remain, and can be purchased at the arena. There have been some Brazilian fans at the matches the first two days.
And while the teams have played matches for higher stakes before, and the teams’ rosters this week reflect that, it's an important match as the teams conclude Week 3 of five weeks of qualifying to try to make the tournament finals. The U.S. is second in the standings with a 7-1 record, and Brazil sixth at 5-3.
The U.S. beat Germany 25-18, 25-22, 25-18 Wednesday, while Brazil swept Korea.
And while Nebraska has become the unofficial domestic competition home for Team USA — this is the fifth time in seven years it's played here — this will be just the second time the U.S. has played Brazil in Nebraska. The other time was in the FIVB World Grand Prix final round in 2015, played in front of 7,800 fans in Omaha. The U.S. won that match in three sets and took the gold medal.
U.S. captain Jordan Larson, one of the three former Nebraska players playing for the national team this week, said teams absolutely have rivals in international volleyball, and Brazil is near the top of the list for the Americans.
“Brazil is definitely a big rival for us,” Larson said. “We lost two (Olympic) gold-medal matches to them in 2008 and 2012. I wasn’t on the 2008 team, but there was definitely some, I wouldn’t say tension, but I think there is healthy competition there."
This is just the start of a long summer of tournaments for both teams, so both aren’t playing all of their best players this week. But plenty of great players are here, including Team USA's three Olympians — outside hitter Kelsey Robinson, setter Carli Lloyd and Larson.
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Brazil is a young team with some injuries, but it got an upgrade this week, as outside hitter Natalia Pereira returned to action after sitting out the first two weeks. She is one of only three Brazilian players with Olympic experience competing in this year’s VNL. Brazil has gone 1-1 this week.
Brazilian coach Jose Roberto Guimaraes says it’s difficult to play against the Americans.
“They play really quickly,” Guimaraes said. “I don’t know, (U.S. coach Karch Kiraly) changes the starting six every time. I don’t know (Thursday), maybe it will be the strongest team they have here, with Larson and Carli; I don’t know the opposite (hitter).
"But they try to do their best here. But for us, it’s important for us to improve with them, because the system is different. They play really fast balls and have a different block system. They serve hard. I think U.S. is the best team in the world right now.”
Serbia is ranked No. 1 in the world, and China is No. 2 and the reigning Olympic champion. So why does Guimaraes think the U.S. is the best?
“I like very much all of the players,” he said. “I coached Carli (in pro volleyball) and I know them and I study them. They are really good, and they have many, many, many players.”
Last year in the VNL the U.S. beat Brazil. But in the biggest matches Brazil has been the best, twice beating the U.S. in the gold-medal match at the Olympics to deny the Americans their first Olympic gold medal in women’s volleyball.
The U.S. and Brazil have played each other 50 times since 2008, with Brazil winning 22 of the matches.
“That should be a fun one,” Kiraly said. “Brazil is a legendary program.”