USA's Matt Anderson, right, spikes the ball past Cuba's Isbel… (Scott Varley / Associated…)
The U.S. men's volleyball team moved to within a victory of a spot in this summer's Olympic Games by beating Cuba, 21-25, 25-18, 25-16, 25-16, on Friday in the semifinals of the NORCECA qualifying tournament played before a near-capacity crowd at Long Beach State.
But first the American had to overcome a slow start that led to a first-set scare in which Cuba scored four points on service aces and got seven points overall from hard-hitting Fernando Hernandez for their only set loss of the tournament .
That would end up being the night's lone bright spot for the young Cubans, though.
"I was extremely proud of the effort as the match went on," said U.S. Coach Alan Knipe, whose team must beat Canada in Saturday's tournament final to win its ticket to London. "But especially the stick-to-it-iveness."
Matthew Anderson had a big night for the U.S., scoring 24 points with 17 kills in 24 attempts with no errors.
"I don't know what happened in that first set," said U.S. captain Clayton Stanley. "Cuba put some pressure on us. Matt Anderson served his butt off."
After its quick start, Cuba -- with five teenagers on its roster -- began to lose confidence, finishing the match with 26 errors to 17 for the U.S..
"As we expected, it was a very tough match.," said 18-year-old Cuban captain Wilfredo Leon. "The U.S. has a lot of experience and we knew what to expect."
Unbeaten Canada rallied past stubborn Puerto Rico, 22-25, 25-23, 19-25, 25-23, 15-11, in its semifinal to advance to within a win of London as well. Two days earlier Canada swept Cuba in three sets in pool play. The two sets lost to Puerto Rico were the only ones Canada has dropped in the event.
Just the winner of the NORCECA tournament -- the regional qualifier for North America, Central America and the Caribbean -- is guaranteed a berth in the London Games. But even if the U.S., the defending Olympic champion, loses to Canada it is likely to be invited to one of the three final qualifying events by virtue of its No. 6 ranking in latest the FIVB poll.
Those three world qualification tournaments will be held in early June in Berlin, Rome and Tokyo, and the U.S., if it were to lose to Canada, would have to win whichever event it plays in to have a chance at defending its gold medal in London.
Cuba, ranked fifth in the world, is likely to be invited to one of those tournaments as well.