RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil’s ardor for the beautiful game poured out of Maracana Stadium on Wednesday, when its men’s soccer team routed Honduras in an Olympic semifinal. Next door, at Maracanazinho, the host country showed just as much passion for its other sports crush.
Brazilians adore volleyball in all its forms: indoor, beach, and the hybrid called footvolley, a popular game at Ipanema and Copacabana beaches where players kick or head the ball over the net. That ensured a large, lively crowd for the U.S.-Poland men’s quarterfinal, even though Brazil didn’t play until the nightcap. Though the home fans didn’t give the U.S. much love, it didn’t matter as the Americans swept Poland 3-0, setting up a Friday semifinal against Italy.
The victory was the fourth in a row for the United States after a rocky start to the Rio Games. The team dropped its first two matches in group play, falling 3-0 to Canada and 3-1 to Italy. Wednesday, in a circular arena thumping with techno music and foot-stomping fans, it demonstrated the swagger that pulled it back from the brink.
“Experiencing those two losses at the beginning, we had to change something,’’ said U.S. outside hitter Taylor Sander. “We have so much confidence right now. I think it’s because we’re being aggressive. The way we’re serving the ball is putting teams on their heels, and the way we’re able to block the ball puts a lot of pressure on them.
“It’s pretty amazing how tough we’ve been. We just want to keep getting tougher.’’
The Maracana district was the liveliest spot at the Olympics on Wednesday afternoon, before the action moved to Copacabana for beach volleyball after dark. The cozy Maracanazinho arena sits right next to Rio’s soccer cathedral, and the streets around the complex teemed with people chanting and waving Brazilian flags.
Inside, Polish and American fans served up dueling cries of “USA! USA!’’ and “Polska! Polska!’’ Volunteers at the arena led dances throughout the match, and in lieu of the wave, fans mimicked blocks or spikes in unison to celebrate big plays.
Most of the biggest plays came from the Americans, who were bounced out of the 2012 Olympics in the quarterfinals and finished tied for fifth. They never gave up on a point, chasing down balls all over the court against their hard-hitting opponents.
The young U.S. team includes only four holdovers from the London Games. It won the first set 25-23 after fighting off a late Poland rally and took the second by the same score after trailing 18-13. While Poland was erratic, the U.S. passed, hit and blocked with consistency and discipline, winning the third set 25-20 to complete the sweep.
“In our first match, we were a little nervous,’’ U.S. outside hitter Aaron Russell said. “For a lot of players, it was their first Olympic match. You just didn’t see the kind of heart we have right now.
“We got together as a team, had meetings and talked over what is expected of each one of us. Now, we’re coming into matches much more aggressive. We just have to keep doing that.’’
The U.S. men are hoping to replicate the success they had at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when a team led by Gophers coach Hugh McCutcheon won the gold medal. It’s unlikely any of Brazil’s love for the sport will spill over to them. The Brazilians whistled and booed on every U.S. serve Wednesday.
That didn’t rile the Americans, who are happy to be hearing any kind of noise after gaining new life.
“We’ve been in tournaments before with our backs against the wall, and we’ve come back and played very hard,’’ opposite Matt Anderson said. “[Rallying after the 0-2 start] is an experience we can rely on as a team.
“We know we don’t have to do anything special. We just have to do what we trained for four years to do at this moment.’’