This is Blair Lambert’s VolleyballMag.com weekly men’s professional volleyball report, featuring Americans around the world. Got a note about a player or a comment for Blair? Email him at email@example.com
The main phase of the most prestigious professional volleyball tournament in the world starts Wednesday. Since the tournament to crown the top club in Europe evolved from a strictly knock-out tournament to the CEV Champions League in the 2000-2001 season, the number of teams participating has grown. The first edition only featured 16 teams from 12 countries. Not every member nation of the CEV had its champion given the chance to compete, only those countries with the highest CEV ranking.
The tournament grew to 28 teams from 16 countries in the 2015-2016 season. Even then, spaces in the tournament were only allotted to the countries with the highest CEV ranking. Starting in the 2016-2017 season, the CEV opened it up to the champions of all the member nations. Teams from countries with low rankings have had to go through preliminary rounds before making the group stage.
The 31 teams from 24 countries initially taking part in this year’s competition have been reduced to 20 with CV Guagas of Spain, CS Arcada Galați of Romania, and Olympiakos Pireaus of Greece qualifying to the group stage through two preliminary rounds. Those clubs will join the 17 clubs who automatically qualified for the group stage due to CEV country rankings to compose five pools of four teams. Russian clubs are not allowed to participate again because of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.
There are 10 American players on six teams left. Dave Smith is trying to win his fourth consecutive championship with ZAKSA Kędzierzyn-Koźle of Poland. He won the last two with Erik Shoji as his teammate, and he was last season’s MVP of the final. ZAKSA will be in Pool A with Matt Anderson of Ziraat Bankasi of Türkiye. Both teams won their respective country’s Supercup competitions, but both have suffered two losses in their domestic leagues. They are both coming off of two sweeps and are favored to be the top two teams in the pool. ZAKSA plays Olympiakos on Wednesday, and Ziraat plays Knack Roeselare of Belgium on Thursday.
TJ DeFalco, in his fifth year as a professional, is making his Champions League debut Thursday. Last season he was…