The United States men’s national team gained an important piece to use for the remainder of the 2021 FIVB Volleyball Nations League campaign after team captain Taylor Sander made his debut in the tournament in Week 4.

Sander’s appearance in the Americans’ 3-0 victory against Italy on Tuesday was his first international match since the 2019 VNL as the 29-year-old outside hitter has had to deal with injuries over the last two years.

A Rio 2016 Olympic bronze medallist, Sander had to undergo surgery on his right shoulder at the end of 2019 and sat out of the entire club season. He returned to action in 2020-2021 playing for PGE Skra Belchatow in Poland but ended the season with an ankle injury that kept him out of the first three weeks of the VNL.

“It’s really good to be back, but I felt a little bit uncomfortable,” he said after scoring 14 points against the Italians. “I haven’t had too many days of actual training with the team so it was hard for me. I don't feel like I’m in very good shape and it will take me some time to get comfortable and play our system of volleyball.”

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Besides regaining his best physical shape, Sander, the MVP of the 2014 FIVB Volleyball World League, feels he also needs to work on chemistry with most of his teammates. As a handful of younger players joined the team during his absence, he says getting to know them all will be the next step in his return to the court.

“The goal, not only for me but for the entire team, is to get better,” he explained. “We’ve had some injuries so now it’s just about getting better as a team. There are some new guys out there I haven’t played with so much, so it’s about getting comfortable with each other and defining our roles as players. That’s all we got to do.”

Sander hits against the Italian block

Sander hits against the Italian block

With five wins in their first ten matches, the Americans will need to step up their game to qualify for the semifinals of the VNL. But they also want to use their next five matches in Rimini to finish their preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.

With the 12 players who will make the trip to Japan already announced by head coach John Speraw, now it’s time to make a final push and head to Tokyo at full pace.

“We have a lot of good guys on our roster,” Sander added. “It’s special for the guys who have made it, but it’s also important to recognise the ones who didn’t. We’ve all worked really hard to try and go to Tokyo and be on the roster and it’s crazy that it’s here now. Now it’s up to us to get better and try and win the Olympic Games.”