Following a disappointing three-set sweep at the hands of Canada in the Rio opener Sunday, Team USA men's volleyball needed a strong showing against Italy Tuesday afternoon.
They got it, but Italy was just a little bit better, taking three of four sets in a closely-contested match.
The same issues plagued U.S. to start the match, as service and unforced errors handed Italy too many points early on.
The two teams battled to 26-all in the first set before USA's Max Holt went long on a serve and then a back-row violation on Aaron Russell (confirmed by a video replay) handed Italy the 28-26 victory.
USA finally won its first set, a 25-20 showing over Italy in the second set of Tuesday's action. The two teams traded points before the U.S. squad pulled away to a 21-16 lead and never looked back.
But that was about all the celebrating a young U.S. team had on the afternoon.
In the third set, Italy let the Americans hang around with service issues of their own plus back-to-back net violations, but eventually claimed the victory 25-23. The U.S. team did not record a single block in the third set.
The U.S. lost another challenge to clinch a victory for Italy in the third set, as the call on the court was confirmed that the clinching spike went off the fingertips of USA's blockers and out of play for the 25th point.
Italy also took home the fourth set by a 25-23 score to send USA home without a point in two matches.
Aaron Russell led all scorers with 22 points as the USA outside hitter has emerged as one of the few consistent bright spots at Rio. Matt Anderson (14 points), Taylor Sander (12) and Max Holt (12) rounded out the top U.S. scorers.
On the Italian side, Osmany Juantorena (20 points) and Ivan Zaytsev (15 points) were dominant forces all match, constantly giving their team a lift when needed.
U.S. captain David Lee was efficient with his spikes on the afternoon, but was a part of the middle-blocker group that had some issues defending Italy.
This is Lee's third Olympics and he sees the losses getting to a U.S. team that boasts eight first-time Olympians.
"I feel like these guys have the weight of the world on their shoulders because they don't want to let down these older players, (Reid) Priddy's last Olympics, my last Olympics," Lee said. "I've never made them feel any pressure like that.
"I feel like we've created a culture we want these guys to feel free and be themselves, use that youth to your advantage and come out with fire and passion. I feel like they're kind of crushed right now. They're down. But they're getting better."
For the second straight day, the team playing the U.S. saw its captain go down with an ankle injury. After Netherlands women's captain Maret Balkestein-Grothues was hurt Monday, Italy's captain Emanuele Birarelli went down in the third set and did not return. The 35-year-old captain was forced to remain on the sidelines with his ankle elevated, unable to contribute except as his team's biggest cheerleader.
"We have to wait the night," Italian coach Gianlorenzo Blengini said of the injured captain. "It seems swollen. Serious for sure. But we will see how it works."
Italy ousted the United States at the London Olympics in 2012 in the quarterfinals round. The Italian squad went on to win bronze.
The U.S. will now have to play some major catch-up with three matches remaining in the preliminary stage of the Olympics. The Americans - still without a point - are looking up at Italy, Canada, Brazil and France in Pool A. Only four teams from each pool advance to the quarterfinals, which begin Aug. 17.
"For them to step out on this court with the balance between the moment and the expectation while being as inexperienced as they are, it's been a really challenging thing for a lot of our young guys," USA coach John Speraw said. "This is what we signed up for.
"We knew this four years ago what we were going to do, and here we are. It's a tough journey."
Quotes from the Associated Press.