Advance on Team USA's game this weekend in Chicago as part of the World League Tour.

Tom Hoff will be returning home to his native Chicago area this weekend, but it won’t be a time for catching up with his relatives and friends.


No, this is a business trip.


Hoff, the captain of U.S. Men’s National Volleyball Team, will lead Team USA against Italy in a two-game series at Chicago State University.


“It’s always nice to be back near my family, but I’m coming back to beat Italy,” Hoff said. “USA Volleyball isn’t flying me here for vacation. I’m here to work.”


Presented by World Sport Chicago, and in collaboration with USA Volleyball and the International Federation of Volleyball, this weekend’s series will give the U.S. squad a chance to improve on its 4-2 record in the World League Tour, now in its fourth week, and advance to the championship tournament from July 11 to 15 in Katowice, Poland.


Though the tour does not determine which countries receive automatic bids to the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the matches will help the team prepare.


“The World League doesn’t have direct Olympic benefit, but (coach) Hugh McCutcheon is trying different players in different positions. He wants to win,” USA Volleyball spokeswoman B.J. Evans said.


The U.S. team is in a pool with Italy, France and Japan in the four-pool World League. After splitting its first two-game showdown with France in late May in Portland, Ore., the U.S. swept Japan in Green Bay, Wis., then tied France 1-1 over the weekend in Lyon, France.


Italy is ranked No. 2 in the world, but the U.S. has the best record in its pool.


Hoff, who grew up in the Park Ridge area, believes a World League event is exactly what Chicago needs.


“Boys in this region need better exposure to the game of men’s volleyball,” Hoff said. “It was hard for me to find outlets to play volleyball here as a kid, and that needs to change.”


Raising the sport’s profile is one of Hoff’s primary goals, especially in larger Midwest cities.


Joining Hoff this weekend will be another Chicago-area product. Sean Rooney, the 2001 Illinois Player of the Year, was raised in Wheaton and played high school volleyball at Wheaton-Warrenville South before attending Pepperdine University. Rooney went on to have a successful career on the AVP Tour and joined the U.S. squad this year.


Now, in the U.S. offseason, Rooney has become a hot commodity in the Korean Professional Volleyball League. For the past two seasons, Rooney has earned MVP honors and led his team, the Hyundai Capital Skywalkers, to consecutive championships.


“I wouldn’t go as far as to call him the Michael Jordan of Korea,” Evans said, “but he’s definitely the Dwyane Wade, though.”


IF YOU GO


What: U.S. men’s volleyball team vs. Italy


When: 7 p.m. today and 5 p.m. Saturday


Where: Emil and Patricia A. Jones Convocation Center on the Chicago State University campus, 9501 S. King Drive, Chicago


Tickets: $12, $8 for children. Two-day passes are $18, $14 for kids. Tickets are available at all Ticketmaster outlets, by phone at (312) 559-1212 or at www.ticketmaster.com.


More info: www.worldsportchicago.org


More volleyball news can be found online at www.dailysouthtown.com/sports.