Brazil Juniors Overcome Two Red Cards, USA Boys to Capture UANA Water Polo Gold

UANA Pan American Junior Cup hardware; what the fuss is about! Peter Laurence/USA Water Polo

By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor

CLEARWATER, FL. A young but experienced USA men’s squad came ready to play Sunday in the UANA Pan American Junior Water Polo Championship final at the Long Center, and for half a game they kept a tough Brazilian team at bay, weathering some surprising referee calls and an injury to a key starter.

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But it was the visitors, led by tournament top scorer and MVP Rafael Vergara, who proved more resilient, overcoming red cards to starting goalie Alexandre Mendes and Head Coach Thiago Batista to grab an 8-5 win over the Americans and take gold at the 2018 UANA Cup.

Both teams came into the match undefeated and playing their best. After opening tournament competition on Tuesday with a 10-all tie, the U.S. and Brazil emerged unscathed from group play and then won their respective semifinal matches on Saturday, the U.S. by 12-9 over Canada and Brazil by 17-5 over Argentina. The Americans advanced by honing their defense in front of Kent Emden, selected the tournament’s top goalie, and getting balanced scoring from throughout their roster.

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Tournament Top Goalie Kent Emden. Photo Courtesy: Peter Laurence / USA Water Polo

All week the Brazilians had bludgeoned the opposition: including the tie with the U.S. they outscored opponents by 52 goals (80-28). But it was their defense, which allowed less than four goals a game to non-American opponents, that was key to this win.

“As you can see, we take a lot of pride in our defense,” said Ricardo Azevedo, formerly one of the world’s more celebrated polo coaches, now a consultant to the CBDA, which oversees Brazilian water polo. “We held a USA team to five goals.”

Missed opportunities early…and late

Team USA opened the scoring at the five-minute mark when Andrew Rodgers beat Mendes with a beautiful backhand in front of the Brazilian cage, while holding their opponents at bay thanks to strong netminding by Emden. But the Americans also missed open looks on Brazil’s goal; and when Marcos Vinicus-Pires took advantage of a defensive breakdown to beat Emden with just under two minutes remaining in the period, the Americans quickly came to regret those squandered scoring opportunities.

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Brazil celebrates! Photo Courtesy: CBDA

“Our problem was we hit a lot of bars and just couldn’t put the ball away,” Trent Calder, the US head coach, said following the match. “The ones that hit the back of the net are the only ones that matter.”

With 37 seconds remaining in the opening period, the game might have changed in the Yanks’ favor. When Mendes yanked the cap of U.S. attacker Garrett Zaan as he looked to clear the ball, in the blink of an eye the Brazilian goalie was red-carded by the referee, and the Americans had a man-up advantage with their opponents minus a goalie. However, Calder chose to call time-out, letting slip a golden opportunity to shoot at the Brazilian net with a field player between the posts.

During the time-out, Brazilian coach Batista substituted Matheus Perira in nets, a change that proved significant—despite entering the match cold, Perira immediately saved an American shot on the ensuing power play, followed by another at period’s end to preserve a tie score. It proved to be a huge momentum change, and the Brazilians took advantage.

Team USA was unable to capitalize on Mendes’ absence—Perira registered a lone save in the second quarter, but the goal posts did their best to deny American shooters. Edmen was also tough in the U.S. cage, but he could only blink when, at the 6:18 mark, Vinicus-Pires ripped a shot past him from six meters. Complicating matters for the Americans, Jackson Painter, their lefty attacker, left the match midway through the period with an undisclosed injury and did not return. But Tanner Pulice, who emerged this week as the team’s most reliable scoring threat, connected from long distance 18 seconds later, knotting the match at two, a score that stood until halftime.

What a difference a half makes

After intermission Brazil adjusted but the Americans did not. Less than a minute into the third period, noting a weakness in the U.S. defense, Vinicius Pessin hit from long distance, followed a minute later by a Vergara laser from five meters that made it 4-2 Brazil. On it’s next possession, with the U.S. a man down, Brazil perfectly executed it’s 6-on-5 offense, with Vergara sprung free at the top for a blast that made it a three-goal advantage.

And they were not done yet.

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Makoto Kenney. Photo Courtesy: Peter Laurence / USA Water Polo

After Makoto Kenney temporarily staunched the bleeding on a strong-side score with four-and-a-half minutes left, the opposition turned up the afterburners. Pedro Henrique Zwicker converted another power play opportunity at the 2:30 mark; then on Brazil’s next possession, Nicholas Fischman fought off a defender to beat Emden in front. When Ethan Parish missed a defensive assignment, Pessin made him and the U.S. pay, scoring at the one-minute mark to put his team up 8-3 and effectively extinguishing American title hopes.

In the fourth period, the Americans rallied for a pair of goals by Kenney, but when Perira capped his relief stint by saving a penalty shot by Nick Tierney halfway through the quarter, all that remained for the visitors was to count down a well-deserved victory.

On offense, Team USA simply could not solve the sparkling reserve Perira at goalie—repeatedly misfiring in front of the net—and not even a second-half red card to their coach diminished the Brazilians’ sharpness.

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Brazil’s Rafael Vergara collecting top scorer and MVP hardaware. Photo Courtesy: Peter Laurence

Calder later conceded that his team lost not because they weren’t passionate, but because they weren’t opportunistic enough.

“We were matched pound-for-pound with them in the second and third quarter,” he said. “We had as many opportunities—I think a lot of better opportunities—we just missed the shot.”

Azevedo, whose responsibilities for the Brazilian water polo program essentially mirror those of John Abdou, USA Water Polo’s Chief High Performance Officer, was extremely pleased by the performances of his junior boys’ and girls’ squads as both advanced to UANA title matches.

“We held our composure, not wasting any opportunities,” he said. “We established our defense and used our speed. That’s what we want to do now and for the future.”

If the UANA championships are any indication, that future looks bright for Brazilian water polo.

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Author: Michael Randazzo

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Michael Randazzo is a freelance contributor at Swimming World focusing on water polo. He covers polo all over the United States for SW and other publications, including the Collegiate Water Polo Association, Skip Shot, The New York Times, Total Water Polo, Water Polo Planet and others. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife and two children and roots for St. Francis Brooklyn polo.

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