2018: A Pivotal Year for U.S. Men’s Water Polo Team

Hannes Daube Hayne
Hands down, Hannes Daube's emergence was the best thing for the U.S. in 2018. Photo Courtesy: USA Water Polo

Looking back at the past year of competition for the U.S. Senior Men’s Water Polo Team, it’s hard not to be disappointed despite an 18-12 record. A tough loss to the Japanese in June cast a pall on Team USA which has yet to fully dissipate. If the Americans are to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics at the Pan American Games next July, Head Coach Dejan Udovicic must direct his young squad past missed opportunities in 2018.

A promising start…

The Yanks opened play last April halfway around the world in Australia and New Zealand, splitting a pair of friendlies in Sydney before striking gold at the FINA Intercontinental Cup in Auckland. Key in the run-up to the Cup title, their first since 2016, was a tough 12-10 win over Japan. This was the first time the two teams had met since a 15-7 Japanese upset in group play at the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships. Keying the win were a pair of Alexes—Bowen and Obert—who each chipped in three goals, and Alex Wolf, who made nine saves in second half duty.

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McQuin Baron—key to U.S. success in polo? Photo Courtesy: USC Athletics

A 9-6 win over the Sharks in the FINA final augured good things to come in 2018; at their next international tournament in June, the possibilities seemed endless for the Americans after three wins to open the 2018 FINA World League Super Final play in Budapest.

In their opener, the U.S. gritted out a taught 8-6 win over Spain, knocked off Kazakhstan 11-4 then upset reigning world champions Croatia 11-10, which left Udovicic’s team at the top of the bracket going into the crossover round. Success has many fathers, but the key to this run was a superb defensive effort, backed by goalie McQuin Baron, and explosive offense by Bowen (five goals against Croatia).

… Dashed by a loss to Japan

U.S. fortunes at the Super League Final were unexpectedly changed by a winless Japanese squad (0-3). Despite four scores by Ben Hallock, in an 11-10 loss Team USA were burned by counter-attacks, exclusions and a motion offense that Head Coach Yoji Omoto’s team has perfected—at least against the Americans. The loss dumped Team USA into the fifth to eight bracket; they then lost to Croatia and finished seventh—a tremendous disappointment after the fast start they enjoyed early in the tournament.

08-08-2015: Waterpolo: Australie v USA: Kazan Waterpolo match between men of Australia and USA during the 16th FINA World Championships 2015 in Kazan
Alex Bowen—an offensive force for Team USA. Photo Courtesy: Gertjan Kooij

At the Four National Tournament in Duisburg, Germany later that June, the Yanks surprised a young Hungarian squad, lost to the Germans, then wiped out China 15-4. Traveling back to Budapest for the Benu Cup, the U.S. dropped matches against Australia and host Hungary before a dominant 12-1 win over Romania. Baron was particularly sharp, stopping 12 Hungarian shots, while Max Irving hit for eight goals over the three matches.

A trip back to California allowed the Yanks to recharge—in the form of two friendlies, both wins, with a Chinese men’s team that has spent the year training in Europe. Then it was on to Berlin in early September for the 2018 FINA World Cup and an entirely different challenge: new rules being test out by FINA prior to the 2019 season.

Tough times in Berlin

Like other squads, Team USA had 11 players dressed and two in the stands, on call for action. Key to the U.S. roster were four college athletes—Hallock, Johnny Hooper, Jack Turner and Dylan Woodhead—who made the trip to Europe while their college squads were playing non-conference matches. The World Cup contained many surprises; referees and coaches grappling with new rules and shorter rosters as well as a strong run by host Germany.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that neither Croatia nor Serbia advanced to the final, the first time this had happened in a major competition since the 2008 Olympics. However, the Americans didn’t medal either; they lost to Croatia, Serbia, Hungary and Croatia again on their way to a 6th place finish.

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Alex Rodriguez, Dejan Udovicic in Berlin. Photo Courtesy: Matthias Beckonert

Besides an inspired effort by American college athletes, a bright spot of the tournament was an 11-10 win over Japan keyed by Bowen’s five goals and 15 saves by Baron.

On the last date of the year the Americans finished out the 2018 campaign with a 10-5 loss to the Italian National Team, who traveled to Southern California for a three-game set with Team USA. The first two matches were all that a U.S. fan might have asked for. Hannes Daube—who is one of the world’s best young polo talents—racked up three goals as Italy won 13-11 in the first match, then hit on four scores in a 12-11 win by the home team.

Drew Holland and Wolf—subbing for the absent McQuin Baron—stood tall in the U.S. cage, which Udovicic got strong contributions from Bowen, Irving, Marko Vavic and a host of first-time national team selections, headlined by Jake Ehrhardt, Duncan Lynde and Sawyer Rhodes.

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Luca Cupido. Photo Courtesy: Robert Hanashiro-USA TODAY Sports

Entering 2019, many question marks persist. Will the young core of the 2016 Olympic squad—Baron, Bowen, Luca Cupido, Hallock, Obert and Alex Roelse—remain intact? How seamlessly will talents Daube, Hooper, Irving and Vavic be melded with this core? And, with the disappearance of Thomas Dunstan, who will be Udovicic’s primary lefty? His Serbian squads were anchored by Filip Filipovic—for years has not only the top left-hander in international play, but regularly voted the world’s best.

With 2018 now in the books, it’s on to 2019. We’ll see if the U.S. has the talent and experience to get past Brazil and Canada to qualify for its ninth-straight Olympic games—in Tokyo, where the Japanese will be waiting.