Water Polo Odyssey Takes Greek Women To California and Collision with Team USA

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The Greek National Water Polo Team—led by Head Coach Giorgos Morfesis—has come to America to train. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

NEWPORT HARBOR, CA. Last Saturday night at Riverside Community College in the first of four friendly matches with the U.S. women’s national water polo team, the Greek national team was thoroughly dominated by the host Americans, dropping a 17-6 decision. Maddie Musselman of the U.S. scored four goals, while Alys Williams chipped in three. Goalie Gabby Stone turned away 13 Greek attempts.

The large deficit was perhaps explained away by jet-lag and adjustments to the conditions of California polo.

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Gabby Stone makes a save Saturday in Riverside. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

On Monday night at Newport Harbor High School, Team USA won again in even more dominating fashion, breaking out to a 7-0 lead on its way to a 14-3 victory. Maggie Steffens and Melissa Seidemann—members of the 2012 and 2016 squads that captured back-to-back Olympic golds—each chipped in with a hat trick for the victorious Americans. Ashleigh Johnson, who backstopped the winning U.S. effort at the Rio Olympics, recorded 13 stops.

[Watch all US vs Greek 2019 friendlies on YouTube]

These first stops on a multi-city training trip are meant to sharpen Greek skills for the upcoming FINA World Championships next month in Gwangju, South Korea. Instead, Giorgos Morfesis, head coach for Greece’s national team, has identified only his squad’s glaring weaknesses.

“We’ve got to be smarter on offense; our final choices have got to be better because our physical condition isn’t as good as the U.S,” Morfesis said after Saturday’s match. “We have to play smarter. … [because] they’re bigger and stronger.”

He added that decision-making against an aggressive American squad is a tall order.

“We have to be more challenging against [the U.S.] and improve our pace in the game,” Morfesis added. “We have to decide what works for us what doesn’t.”

Getting anything to work has been an uphill battle for the Greeks so far—a situation that must be corrected if they are to qualify for their first Olympics since 2008.

A numbers game

For the U.S.—which qualified for their sixth straight Olympic Games three weeks ago by winning the FINA World League Super Final title—the most important number is 11. That’s the roster limit imposed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for next year’s Tokyo Games, which creates a fiercely competitive environment among the 18 women currently on the U.S. roster.

With nine Olympians vying for spots, the majority of Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s squad is likely set. But, with a spectacular string of success, including 45 straight wins, not only is Team USA the world’s most dominant women’s squad, they’re also the deepest.

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Stephania Haralabidis would perhaps be the best player on her native Greece’s squad—but she’s playing for Team USA. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

An example of this is Stephania Haralabidis. The lefty attacker won the 2016 Cutino Award as the nation’s best female collegiate player—the same year she led USC to an NCAA championship. Originally from Greece, after residing in America for high school and college, Haralabidis switched to a US passport and is now fighting for a spot in Krikorian’s rotation. An extremely fast and fluid player, her offensive skills would be a tremendous boost to the Greek attack.

If Morfesis is disappointed at his countrywoman’s choice, he was keen not to show it. “It was her choice; her life is here now… life is more important than water polo,” he said.

Haralabidis did not score in either match—one of the few Americans who didn’t—but she was a dynamic player throughout, with a number of pin-point passes that resulted in easy scores for her teammates. It’s not her offense that will determine if she makes the final cut for her adopted country. Haralabidis’ ability to defend will likely be decisive, given the defense-first approach that Krikorian demands of his players.

Greeks can’t keep up

With only a limited amount of time to practice, and hampered by the distance traveled and time zone changes, the visitors immediately fell into a 4-0 hole against the host Americans on Saturday. The difference grew to 12-6 by the end of the third period, then the home team took full advantage of their jet-lagged visitors, sprinting to a 5-0 finish.

The Greek head coach chalked the performance up to a 7,000-mile journey as well as a lack of practice.

“That was our third scrimmage [together]; we practiced but that was the first with referees,” Morfesis said. “We’re still tired with jet lag from the travel. It’s our third day here, so we’re trying to adjust to the time difference. In Greece it’s 7 a.m. right now.”

With a few more days to acclimate, the first period at Newport Harbor looked more promising, as the Greek deficit after one period was two.

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Rachal Fattal in 2017 against Spain. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Then the Americans, led by Rachel Fattal, dropped the hammer on their opponents. Fattal—who would be the most dominant player on any other squad in the world but plays off of Steffens, Musselman and others—beat goalie Ioanna Stamatopoulou on a five-meter blast minutes into the second period. Then, underscoring how valuable she is to Krikorian’s attack, Fattal corralled an errant pass and converted, giving her squad a four-goal advantage.

After scores by Musselman, Aria Fischer and then Seidemann, Alkisti Avramidou finally got the visitors on the board three minutes into the third period.

Morfesis knows his team must adjust; with two more matches against the two-time defending world champions, it’s imperative the Greeks improve against the style of play favored by their hosts.

Helping prepare for the American attack is Alkistis Benekou. From 2014 to 2018 she played in the U.S. for Arizona State, finishing her Sun Devil career with 181 goals, good for third on the program’s all-time scoring list. Benekou, who initially struggled in her freshman year at ASU, was clear about what her team needs to do to be more competitive.

“[American players] were much strong and they were moving a lot. It was hard to defend their drives,” she said after the match in Riverside. “Europeans play more with tactics and we don’t move much. Here they play more press so you have to be mobile.”

Acknowledging a dimension of the American attack that’s hard to counter, Benekou added: “Because of our bodies we’re not that big—so we can’t press as much as the U.S. does.”

Her coach then chipped in. “We are Mediterraneans,” Morfesis said, underscoring the size difference between opponents. “We’ve got to use our brains more.”

One goal: open the Worlds with a win

Going into Gwangju, the US will again be favored for gold. If they manage this feat—and it would be foolish to doubt a squad that has captured titles in its last 11 tournaments—Krikorian’s squad will have accomplished a unique feat: three straight FINA World Championships. The dominant Hungarian men’s teams that captured gold in the 2000, 2004 and 2008 Olympics finished first at Worlds in 2003 but fell short in 2005 and 2007, losing in the finals both years.

Greece obviously has ambitions to do well next month; why else would they travel to California and face the world’s best at home? There is an important prize at stake: the top finisher at Worlds earns a berth to Tokyo. The Americans and host Japanese are already in, so claiming one of the eight remaining spots is a the Greek goal.

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There’s little doubt that USA’s Maggie Steffens is the world’s best. Photo Courtesy: SIPA USA

Despite injuries to lefty attacker Elisavet Protopapas and goalie Chrysi Diamantopoulou, Morfesis is zeroing on what his team needs to be fully prepared by the time they arrive in Gwangju.

“14th of July is our first game for the Worlds—that’s the moment we have to be at our best,” he explained. “Our first game is Spain, so we have to have a strategy for this game… we have to hide our weaknesses and take advantage of our strong side. We’ve got to be ready for [the Spanish] centers because they’re pretty good.”

The loss of Diamantopoulou is huge setback; she is the squad’s best keeper, but will miss World recovering from shoulder surgery. Still, the Greeks remain undaunted; an opening win against Spain would set them up for an easier path to a favorable quarterfinal match-up, given that group rivals include Cuba and Kazakhstan.

[FINA Approves New Water Polo Rules; More Changes Likely]

Besides preparing for a tough opening match-up, Morfesis hopes his players gain experience with the new water polo rules recently imposed by FINA. But—unlike the Americans’ concerns—focusing on the new rules or reducing his roster to fit the IOC’s dictate is the least of the Greek coach’s concerns.

We just want to make the Olympics,” he said. “We don’t care if it’s nine, 11 or 13.”

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