By Bruce Wigo
BEIJING, China, August 16. THE U.S. Men's Water Polo Team pulled off an epic upset this morning against Croatia at Yingdong Natotorium in Beijing. Led by Tony Azevedo's three goals and eleven saves by goalkeeper Merill Moses, the Americans beat the reigning World Champion, 7 – 5.
The U.S. came into the game fresh off a disappointing loss to Serbia. Coach Terry Schroeder called the game against Croatia a test of character for the team, for Azevedo and Moses. Azevedo and Moses had something to prove. In the loss to Serbia, Azevedo was scoreless on eight shots. For Moses, he was playing against the coach, Ratko Rudic of Croatia, who cut him from the U.S. National Team before the Athens Olympic Games. Both were spectacular as the team passed Schroeder's test.
In its first three games, Croatia looked to be unstoppable. But earlier this summer, the U.S. beat Croatia in Thousand Oaks, Calif., in a game nationally televised on MSNBC. The U.S. dominated the Croatians then, but as Rudic said, that was practice, "it will be different in the Olympics." It wasn't.
The first quarter was a scoring battle between Croatia's Teo Dogas and Azevdeo. Dogas scored first, thirty seconds into the game. Azevedo followed at the 3:15 mark. Dogas scored his second power play goal and at 2:45 Tony replied in kind.
The U.S. took a 5 – 2 lead in the second period on goals by Peter Varellas, Adam Wright and Tim Hutten. Samir Barac broke the scoring drought for Croatia at 1:59 and the first half ended with the U.S. on top 5 – 3.
The third period was scoreless. At 5:44 of the final period, Croatia's center forward, Mile Smodlaka, netted a goal from the hole, but a minute later, Azevedo scored a spectacular shot over two defenders from six meters out. Maro Jokovic scored on a power play to bring the Croatians within one, but Ryan Bailey killed the Croat hopes with a power play goal from the post position with 1:33.
Next up for the U.S. in the final game of preliminary round play is Germany, winners over Italy this morning 8 – 7. The Germans lead from the start to the finish line making it official that Italy will finish in the 9 – 12 group. The Americans need a win or tie to advance into the quarterfinals.
In Group B play today, Greece crushed Canada, 11 – 5. Spain jumped out to a 7 – 1 over Montenegro and held on to win 12 – 6. Montenegro is the reigning European Champion and earlier had tied the defending Olympic Champion Hungarians in the opening game of this tournament while Spain had lost to Hungary 8 – 5, so this result is something of a surprise. The Australians tested the Hungarians before losing 13 – 12. With the win, the Hungarians are virtually assured of the Group B bye into the semi-finals. Spain appears to have the second slot secured while the third spot will be determined on Monday when Australia plays Montenegro. Anything less than a win and the Australians will fall to the 9 – 12 group.