By Michael Randazzo, Swimming World Contributor
What a difference a year—or a decade—makes.
When the U.S. Men’s Senior National Team was last in Budapest for the 2017 FINA World Water Polo Championships, they were soundly beaten by a Croatian squad that went on to claim the title of “World Champions” with a run to the FINA title, including a thrilling 12-11 win over arch-rival Serbia and a convincing 8-6 finals victory over the host Hungarians.
Fast forward to today, and it was the Americans—with essentially the same line-up that finished a program-worst 13th last year at FINA Worlds—that broke out to a four-goal lead at the half and then hung on for an 11-10 win over the champs in 2018 FINA World League Super Final pool play.
Team USA tagged the Croatians with a loss in major international competition for the first time since the 2008 Olympic Games.
Leading the way, as he has in propelling the U.S. to a spotless (3-0) record in pool play, was Alex Bowen. Selected as “Man of the Match,” Bowen tallied five goals, none so impressive as his natural hat trick to close out the third period, putting his team up 11-8.
That the Yanks were able to hang on is a testament to a team defensive effort by Head Coach Dejan Udovicic’s squad—and the luxury of having McQuin Baron in net. Now in his fourth year as a member of the senior men’s team, the 6-8 Baron was absolutely amazing in nets throughout the match. In fact, those were the exact words used by the announcer on FINA.TV’s streaming service after an incredible head save early in the second period.
Now free of his commitments to USC—he graduated last month—the top U.S. goalie was absolutely dominant in the first half, repeatedly frustrating the Croatians. He saved a 5M penalty shot by Ante Vukievic with seconds left in the first period, preserve a 2-1 lead fashioned on goals by Hannes Daube and Alex Roelse.
The second period saw the American pile on Croatian netminder Marko Biljac, with Bowen, Johnny Hooper, Bowen again, and Luca Cupido scoring. The backbreaker was a goal with one second left, giving the U.S. a 7-3 advantage, when Max Irving fought off an attacker and beat Biljac from in front of his cage.
The final period saw Croatia score two goals to cut the U.S. advantage to one with four minutes to go. This is when the Americans’ defensive prowess came to the forefront, as Baron and his teammates weathered two man-up situations in the last two minutes for the win.
Roster changes for the Americans on this current visit to Budapest were minimal but significant. Jesse Smith, a four-time Olympian and the team’s captain, provides much-needed experience to a young squad seeking an identity. Daube, the youngest player on the squad, has already demonstrated just how valuable he is to Udovicic’s attack, with a goal today and three yesterday, which earned the rising college freshman—at Southern Cal in the fall—Man of the Match honors.
The Croatians, who suffered their second straight loss of the tournament, brought seven members of the squad that last July memorably ended Serbia’s lengthy reign as the world’s best. A key absence for Head Coach Ivica Tucak is captain Sandro Sukno. Arguably the world’s best player, since last fall Sukno has been struggling with health issues that have curtailed his career.
Healthy or not, Sukno’s presence could only have helped his countrymen on the power play. Croatia went an abysmal 2 of 14 with the man advantage. Team USA was a relatively efficient 2 of 7 in man-up situations.
No matter who was in the pool for Croatia today, this band of young Americans was intent on proving that a long-term rebuilding effort by Udovicic and assistants Gavin Arroyo and Alex Rodriguez is starting to bear fruit.
Tomorrow is another day; the U.S.—which won the pool over Spain, Croatia and Kazakhstan— will take on an opponent to be determined on Thursday in quarterfinal play currently scheduled for 1:45 p.m. (EST) / 10:45 a.m. (PST) (subject to change).