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Recently, the USA men’s water polo team has struggled mightily in international competition and entered the Olympics with the no. 9 ranking in the world. Nobody believed they would even sniff the medal round…except for them.
And sometime after they lost the gold medal game to perennial powerhouse Hungary 14-10, it began to sink in. Initial feelings of disappointment and anger were overtaken by a huge sense of accomplishment.
Keeper Merrill Moses put it like this: “USA water polo hasn’t been on the podium in 20 years. We wanted the gold, but I’m happy I have a medal around my neck.”
“It’s amazing that we got here,” attacker Adam Wright said. “We’ve been through a whole hell of a lot the last four years, an unbelievable amount of adversity. This team has stuck together since 2000. We had some real dark moments.”
The team had been described as a dysfunctional family by those who were closest to them. They had gone through four different coaches in as many years. The team was in complete turmoil; they were losing games by huge margins and were being embarrassed on the international stage.
This past May, led by head coach Terry Schroeder, the US lost by double digits to Serbia, who they ended up beating 10-5 to advance to the gold medal game in Beijing. They have come a long way in a very short amount of time.
In the loss, Tony Azevedo had an impressive performance, registering 4 goals and 5 assists. The Hungarians, who boast that water polo is their national sport, were too powerful offensively. The US defense could not contain the double-headed monster of Daniel Rudolf Varga and Peter Biros.
Varga tallied a hat-trick alone in the 4th quarter, scoring three consecutive goals to make it a 13-9 deficit from which Team USA could not recover.
"The United States of America is not going to play a shootout against the best team in the world," Azevedo said. "We can only do that for so many quarters."
Throughout the Olympics, the US was relying on good defensive play to win games. In water polo, like in most sports, good defense always beats good offense. Team USA managed to hold their opponents to an average of 6 goals per game, which is indicative of very strong defensive play.
USA did manage to tie the game at 9-9 in the third quarter and the score was close for the majority of the game. But while Hungary went on a 5 goal run in the 4th quarter, the US struggled offensively. They rushed shots and were taking too many outside shots instead of methodically working the ball into the 2-meter position (think center in basketball...your biggest, strongest player and best inside shooter...). They got away from the game plan that got them to the gold medal game in the first place.
“14 goals isn’t going to get the job done…It’s going to hurt tonight and hurt tomorrow, but as the months go on, they’re going to realize what a huge deal this is,” head coach Terry Schroeder said. “They’ve got a lot to be proud of.”