Tokyo Bound! Decisive Win Over Canada in Pan Am Water Polo Final Gives USA Men Gold, 2020 Olympics Berth

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - The USA team celebrates after winning the Men´s Water Polo Gold match against Canada at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Four years in the making, USA men celebrate water polo gold at 2019 Pan American Games. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. After all the planning and effort and anxiety that go into an Olympic qualification, in the end the USA men’s water polo team passed their biggest test with flying colors. Racing out to a 4-1 lead in the first period of their 2019 Pan American Games gold medal match with Canada, Team USA proceeded to absolutely dismantle their disorganized opponent on the way to a decisive 18-6 win Saturday night at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex.

pan_american_logo.svgThe win not only gave the Americans their seventh-straight Pan American gold, it assured them of a berth among the 12 teams that will participate in the Tokyo Games next July.

Leading the way for Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s squad were Alex Bowden, Ben Hallock and Johnny Hooper, who each chipped in five goals on a combined 21 shots. In goal, Alex Wolf was superb, stopping 13 Canadian shots while directing a defense that allowed only six scores on 31 shots.

Udovicic, usually effusive in his comments about polo, which has been his life’s pursuit since picking up the sport as a child in Belgrade, was surprisingly reserved in his comments after arguably the biggest match of his national team tenure.

“I’m happy, especially because of the guys,” Udovicic said after the match. “This is especially important for Jesse [Smith] and all, it’s a very young group.

“To play like this under pressure, I’m pleased,” he added.

For the Canadian Head Coach Giuseppe Porzio, who knew that his team lacked the experience and depth of its American rival, the lopsided loss was not unexpected, especially after coming from behind to beat Brazil in the semifinals.

“They were stronger than us—maybe we spend a lot of energy in the last game,” Porzio said. “But, we missed too many [opportunities].

“I had hoped that we could stay in the first two periods close to [the Americans] but they got three minutes, three goals and we had not energy, not confidence” to come back.

Aleksa Gardijan had two goals for Canada, while Jeremie Blanchard, Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, Mark D’Souza and Gaelan Geddes Patterson each contributed in a lone score.

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - Benjamin Hillock from the USA, left, competes against Jeremie Cote from Canada at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

USA’s Ben Hallack scoring past Canada’s Mark D’Souza. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

The win puts Team USA on a new path: preparing for the Olympic games in ten months. The Canadians still hope to join them among the world’s top 12 but will now have to regroup and look to secure a berth at the Tokyo Games at an Olympic qualifier next March in Europe.

Opening burst sets tone for USA

As happened in the first match here between these two teams, when the Americans won 13-11 in Group A play, Ben Hallock scored in the first minute to give his team a lead. The burly whole set, sporting a clipped hair cut reminiscent of the 1950’s, was left uncovered in front of the Canadian cage and easily beat goalie Milan Radenovic.

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

Unlike last Monday’s match, where Canada answered with three first period scores, it was the Americans who poured it on. Bowen, the team’s best shooter, punished Radenovic and his teammates for being a man down, hitting a power play goal at the 6:18 mark. A minute later Luca Cupido, like Bowen and Hallock a veteran of the US’s participating in the 2016 Rio Games, then bear his defender and the Canadian goalie with a six-meter blast.

A goal by Blanchard with two and a half minutes in the period stemmed the American onslaught, but only for a few seconds, as Bowen hit on another power play strike 20 seconds later. When Hallock shoveled a shot past a besieged Radenovic to open the second period, the rout was on. Hooper got onto the scoring sheet with a power play goal a minute and a half into the period.

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - Mathew Halajian from Canada, left, challenges for the ball against Marco Vavic from the USA at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Canada’s Mathew Halajian and USA’s Marko Vavic. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

Sensing the danger to his team’s hopes, Porzio called for time after Hooper’s score, but it was for naught, as Bowen completed his hat trick on the next America possession. He found himself uncovered to the right of the Canadian cage and uncorked a laser that put Canada down 7-1, a lead which would prove unsurmountable

The free-spirited San Diego native was effusive about his team’s effort in the most important contest since Rio three years ago—particularly after the tragedy in Gwangju last month, were two people died and some of his teammates were injured.

“After all that happened it brought us so close together—that first half was a testament to how close we are as a team, to fight the whole way through,” a smiling Bowen said after the match, then added: “We played really well and I loved it.”

Mistakes doom Canadians

The American’s took advantage of every opportunity afforded them—and there were many for the taking. The Canadians were whistled for 19 fouls, and Team USA scored 12 goals off of those mistakes—and missed converting one of two penalty shots. It’s often convenient to blame the referees for such largess, but calling the game were Boris Margeta and Arkadii Voevodin, two of the world’s more experienced officials.

[On The Record with Boris Margeta, Renowned Referee, at the 2019 Pan American Games]

As the goals mounted, so did the frustration of Porzio’s team. A 10-2 halftime deficit grew to 12-3 late in the third period, when Canadian captain Constantin-Bicari inexcusably ignored an exclusion and was whistled by Margeta for a third major foul, ending his night.

D’Souza, a major part of the Canadian offense because of his big shot, was missing in action for much of the match. He scored only once on his five shots, with the that goal coming at the five-minute mark in the final period, when his team behind by ten. As the deficit ballooned to 13, he lost composure battling with Hooper and was sent packing from the match with a red card.

A brash 20-year-old, D’Souza represents the hope of a Canadian program that has not qualified for the Olympics in more than a decade. After the match, he was subdued but determined to pursue an Olympic dream that has persisted since a youngster.

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

“Credit where credit is due—the U.S. played a very good game today,” D’Souza said. “They got the opportunities, they capitalized on them and they put us away early.”

Lima, Saturday August 10, 2019 - The USA team celebrates after winning the Men´s Water Polo Gold match against Canada at the Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Americans savor the moment: Pan Am gold—and an Olympic berth. Photo Courtesy: Enrique Cuneo / Lima 2019

Then, responding to the open question of his and his teammates’ immediate future, D’Souza was adamant that Canada’s Olympic dreams continue.

“We have a lot of guys that have their priorities straight, and we know what we want as a team and as individuals,” he said. “We’re hoping it will all come together at the right time—hopefully in March.”

Wolf stands tall

In a blowout win, it’s typical to overvalue offensive output, but the American defensive effort Saturday was decisive. The U.S. defenders suffocated the Canadian shooters, squelching any power play opportunities. Porzio’s team was a miserly 3 of 13 with the man advantage.

At the core of this defensive effort was Wolf, who aggressively defended the Canadian attack, twice flying out of his cage to corral errant passes in front. One of a host of Americans playing in the Pan American Games for the first time—only Bowen, Hallock, Alex Obert and captain Jesse Smith had played in a Pan Am previously—he appears unaffected by big moments. An NCAA champion with UCLA in 2017, Wolf knows how to remain composed, and in this match he played to his full potential.

Afterwards, trying to appear casual despite the magnitude of the moment, the 22-year-old couldn’t hide his glee at his and his team’s success.

“It’s cocky to say I expected it, but this is a goal I’ve set and I’ve done everything to get there,” Wolf said, then added: “Those dreams are becoming a reality.”

For him, his teammates, and U.S. polo fans everywhere.

2 comments

  1. Thomas A. Small

    Congratulations guys great job