Long-Time Dreams Collide At 2019 Pan American Men’s Water Polo Final

Lima, Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - Ivey Arroyo from Cuba tries to reach Mark D' Souza from Canada during the Men's Group A Preliminary Waterpolo match at Villa María del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 NO SALES NO ARCHIVES **
Canada's Mark D'Souza (right) in group play against Cuba's Ivey Arroyo. Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. Saturday evening at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex dreams, desires and anxieties will overlap when Canada faces the USA in the men’s water polo final. This is not merely a game between two regional rivals—and it’s not just gold and local bragging rights on the line. The winner claims a berth in the 2020 Olympics, the sport’s biggest event. The loser has to seek another path to Tokyo—or go back to the drawing boards and start another four-year cycle to qualify for the Paris Games in 2024.

pan_american_logo.svgCanadian Mark D’Souza is not prepared to wait that long, even though his country has been waiting more than a decade for men’s water polo to return to the Olympic Games. After his team recovered Friday night from blowing an early three-goal lead to beat Canada 8-7 in a semifinal match, the brash 20-year-old described how getting to this moment has been the culmination of a life-long pursuit.

“A lot of us have been together for years, in the junior program, in the youth program,” he said. “We knew that this cycle would be like this, and this was the tournament we were preparing for.

“We’ve talked about it over and over again: we need to prepare for moments like this,” he added.

And prepare they did. Under the calm leadership of head coach Giuseppe Porzio, Canada has assembled a core group of youngsters like D’Souza, Jeremy Cote (19-years-old) and Mark Spooner (21)—some of whom have been playing together since they were kid—and melded it with experienced players including Georgios Torakis and captain Nicolas Constantin-Bicari.

Now, they will face a U.S. side that is also chock-full of youthful athletes with out-sized dreams. Even though the Americans have been to every Olympics since the 1984 Games, which they hosted in Los Angeles, only five of their players—Alex Bowen, Luca Cupido, Ben Hallock, Alex Obert and Jesse Smith—have Olympic experience. Smith is hoping to get to his fifth—which will happen with a win today.

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Alex Wolf. Photo Courtesy: Minette Rubin

At 22, U.S. goalie Alex Wolf is by no means the youngest American—that honor belongs to Hannes Daube, who like Cote is 19—but he too has been planning for this moment for more than half his 22 years on the planet.

“I’ve been working towards this since I was 10-year-old,” Wolf said. “It’s not just the few years I’ve been on the team.

“It’s that way for everyone. It’s a life goal, not just a: ‘Hell, I’m on the national team—time to start working’ kind of goal,” he added.

Saying that it’s an honor to represent his country, Wolf—who like many in his position is entirely focused on the moment—downplayed the magnitude of the moment: “I try to treat every game—no matter who we’re playing, where we’re playing.

“It’s still just water polo.”

Finally, a final worth watching

The Canada vs. America match-up is a worthy conclusion to a tournament that has witnessed a series of uneven matches. In five victories the U.S. has outscored opponents 99-20 and only been behind once—to the Canadians. Two of the most competitive games so far have been the Canada-Brazil semifinal match and when Canada and the U.S. met in Group A play. After going behind 3-1 the Americans rallied for a 13-11 victory.

[USA Men Go Up Big Against Canada, Hold on for Win at Day Two of Pan American Water Polo Action]

Wolf, with a compartmentalized approach to his play, which includes focusing solely on the match at hand, nevertheless remembers facing D’Souza, who nicked him for a goal in four attempts in the first match here in Lima.

“He’s one of their better shooters—he’s definitely going to be looking to take shots.”

A pure shooter with a deft touch, D’Souza has 10 goals on 24 shots, good for third on his squad behind Constantin-Bicari’s 19 and Matthew Thomas Halajian’s 13. He was part of an opening match barrage against Brazil’s Slobodan Soro, where the Canadians scored on their first three shots to open an early lead. Soro, considered the best goalie in the tournament, may then have gotten in the young shooter’s head. D’Souza proceeded to miss his next seven attempts as Brazil rallied, and was on the bench with three exclusions when Constantin-Bicari beat Soro with 43 seconds left to get his team into the final.

If he was daunted by his shot selection, D’Souza wasn’t saying so.

“I wouldn’t say they were my best shots of the day; I didn’t convert on a lot of them,” he said then—like any great shooter—defended his selection. “However, I do think those lobs Soro didn’t touch. I touched the post on all three—he got a two-meter on one—so I can live with those shots.”

“I’m just happy we got the win.”

Lima, Tuesday, August 6, 2019 - Mark Spooner from Canada struggles with Danilo Palacio from Cuba during the Men's Group A Preliminary Waterpolo match at Villa María del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 NO SALES NO ARCHIVES **

Canada’s Mark Spooner (left) fights with Cuba’s Danilo Palacio. Photo Courtesy: Paul Vallejos / Lima 2019

For the Canadian coach, the win was another positive step forward for a young team with big dreams but not a lot of history of success.

“It’s important that we didn’t lose confidence, even if we miss a lot of chances with a man-up,” Porzio said after the match. “In the end, we [took] the right shots, and that’s important for a young team.”

On the U.S. side, there’s a matter-of-factness that belies the high stakes at this tournament: both an Olympic berth, which the Americans have claimed every four years since losing the 1975 Pan Ams to Mexico, and Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s legacy. After five years leading Team USA, and with only a 10th place finish at the 2016 Rio Games to his credit, the pressure is on Udovicic to at least qualify his squad for Tokyo.

But, given his responses after a lopsided win over Argentina, if the U.S. coach is feeling the heat, he’s not showing it.

“If we’re going to be ourselves, we should be fine.” Udovicic said, then qualified his thoughts. “If we’ve got right approach, right aggressiveness, calm head….”

By statistics and previous match-ups, the Americans are the apparent favorite in this match-up. Part of their run-up to the Pan Ams included a ninth-place finish at the 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, were they closed with wins over South Africa and Montenegro, one of the world’s best sides. The Canadians did not qualify for Worlds; this has either left them well-rested or under-prepared for the rigors of a winner-take-all match.

[USA Men Finish Strong at FINA World Water Championships, Beat Montenegro 15-14]

Udovicic, who has taken three teams to the Olympics and as a youngster was schooled in the hyper-competitive culture of the Belgrade’s VK Partizan water polo club—home to many of the best Yugoslavian and then Serbian players the past half-century—certainly knows the stakes. As head coach for Serbia in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, Udovicic twice failed to make the final—and was ousted in 2013.

17-07-2019: WK waterpolo: USA v Kroatia: Gwangju Team USA Gwangju South Korea 17/07/2019 Waterpolo M10 USA - CRO 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships Nambu University Grounds Orange Pictures / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Are the young American’s together as one? Saturday’s match will show. Photo Courtesy: Orange Pictures

He suggested that a championship match is like no other, presenting a whole new set of psychological challenges.

“It’s different because this is a final game, it’s not the same game as the bracket” he said, then broke down his team’s biggest challenges: stop Constantin-Bicari and play their game.

Not a word about D’Souza, who’s probably too brash and too confident to worry about what the other team thinks of him. All he wants is to play the Americans, shoot the ball—and validate his team’s worth.

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