Detroit — Fresh off its first-round sweep of Mexico, the U.S. men's national volleyball team was aiming to roll through the competition Friday in the NORCECA Champions Cup.
Instead, the U.S. faced a stiff test from a pesky, young Cuba squad hungry for a win after suffering a tough loss to Canada in straight games.
Despite losing the first game of its second-round match, the U.S. bounced back in impressive fashion to throttle World No. 11 Cuba in four games, 20-25, 25-17, 25-10, 25-14, at Joe Louis Arena.
The win secured a spot for Team USA in September's World Cup in Japan, clearing the first hurdle toward qualifying for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
"Obviously we're excited to qualify for the World Cup. It's a little stressful when you have a tournament of this importance early in the season and you could see some of the reason why we're stressed," U.S. coach John Speraw said. "The connection between the setters and hitters isn't there yet. We still have some system things we need to work out. Guys just don't seem to have the same kind of duration of focus throughout the match and part of it is they're just tired after a long year.
"With all that, the fact we came out and played well in certain facets of the game I thought was really good and we got the win we needed."
After dropping the first game, World No. 5 U.S. jumped out to an early lead in the second and began extending it midway through as back-to-back kills by Taylor Sander and Matt Anderson gave it a 16-10 advantage, its largest of the game.
Cuba stormed back to cut the deficit to 18-17 on a kill by Osmany Uriarte. The U.S. closed out strong, stringing together the final seven points, highlighted by a pair Anderson kills and a thunderous kill by Murphy Troy to even the match at 1-all.
"Sometimes I feel like we just have to get a break one way or the other," Speraw said. "I felt we were serving and passing pretty well. They were getting a dig here, a big play there or hit it off our block randomly. Eventually we just started getting a couple points and David Lee's service run in second set was really big. It helped break that game open and change the momentum of the match."
The U.S. rode that momentum into the third game, roaring out to a 5-1 lead and never looking back. Its lead soon ballooned into the double digits after Anderson's kill made it 18-8. Then after a service error, the U.S. tallied five consecutive points, including a pair of Maxwell Holt aces, to take a commanding 23-9 lead before Anderson ended it with a block.
"(The early lead) gives us more freedom to play our game," Anderson said. "But we don't want to rely on those leads to win a set. Anything can happen."
Much like the third game, the U.S. came out firing in the fourth and rattled off three straight points to double up Cuba, 16-8. From that point on, the U.S. scored eight of the next 11 points to push its lead to 24-11, drawing chants of "U-S-A" and bringing the crowd to its feet.
Cuba fought off three match points before hitting the ball out of bounds, giving the U.S. a much-needed confidence boost heading into its tournament finale Saturday against World No. 14 Canada in a border battle for first place.
"Our goal of this tournament is to qualify for the World Cup which we accomplished. Our next goal now is to play against Canada and do our best against them," Anderson said. "This match started off rough. We definitely didn't execute the way we wanted to and we gave ourselves some chances but made some errors with blocking and not handling the ball as well as we wanted to.
"Just a few plays can lose you a set and ultimately the match, but we played with good energy all the way through it and we're lucky we came back around and won."
Anderson led the U.S. attack with 15 kills, a block and an ace. Troy added 13 kills and an ace, Sander had 10 kills, three blocks and two aces, and Holt had five kills, three aces and two blocks.
Canada def. Mexico, 25-12, 25-20, 25-13: Prior to the U.S.'s match, Canada became the first team to qualify for the 2015 World Cup after sweeping Mexico behind Gavin Schmitt's 10 kills, 10 digs and two blocks.
Daniel Lewis added 11 digs and Tyler Sanders recorded 18 assists.
Pedro Rangel finished with 31 assists and Jose Martinez had nine points (seven kills, two blocks) for Mexico, which committed 32 errors.
James Hawkins is a freelance writer.