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Americans looking to break through

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Four years ago in Beijing, coach Hugh McCutcheon led the U.S. men to an emotionally charged gold-medal victory over defending champion Brazil.

The U.S. women are his project in London.

The women have never won gold in indoor volleyball, which became an Olympic sport in 1964. In 2008 they came close but fell to Brazil in the final.

There are many who believe that this will be the year for the Americans. The team is ranked No. 1 in the world, and qualified early for the Olympics by claiming the silver medal at 2011 World Cup in Japan.

“You don’t back-door your way into being the best at anything. You have to deal with the fact that there are a lot of strong teams out there and you’ve got to be comfortable in that environment. That’s not something we’re afraid of, that’s something we embrace,” McCutcheon said. “We’ll work as hard as we can to be the best we can come London, and we’ll either be good enough or we won’t. But it’s not going to be a whole lot about who is on the other side of the net. It’s going to be about stepping out on the floor and playing USA volleyball to the best of our ability.”

McCutcheon, a New Zealander, took over the women’s team for the Olympic quadrennial and will leave to become head coach at Minnesota after London.

The Beijing Games started with unimaginable tragedy for McCutcheon, whose father-in-law was murdered at a popular tourist attraction in China just before the opening ceremonies. He left the men’s team briefly to be with his family, but rejoined his players in their undefeated march to the gold.

It is not unusual for coaches to flip between national teams. Bernardo Rezende now coaches the Brazilian men after guiding the women’s national team for a decade, and Jose Roberto Guimaraes led the Brazilian women to the gold medal in Beijing, 16 years after doing the same with the men’s team in Barcelona.

The U.S. women have won the silver medal at the Olympics twice, in Beijing and in 1984. The team won bronze at the Barcelona Games in 1992.

As the defending champions, the Brazilian women are considered among the favorites with the United States. They’ll play in the same pool in London along with China, Serbia, Turkey and Korea.

The top four teams to emerge out of each pool will advance to the quarterfinals. The medal matches at Earls Court are set for Aug. 11.

There was some controversy in the field when Thailand claimed Japan threw an Olympic qualifying match last month against Serbia to avoid landing in the same pool as the U.S. and Brazil. The FIVB, the sport’s international governing body, rejected the allegations.

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