No Stopping Us Now! USA Women Beat Brazil at 2019 Pan American Water Polo Tournament

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - USA ’s Stephanie Haralabidis, left, scores a goal past goalkeeper Victoria Chamorro from Brazil during the Women’s Preliminary Group A Water Polo match at the Polideportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo at the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Brazil's Victoria Chamorro could not blunt an American onslaught in a 20-4 loss. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. For a brief moment, it appeared that the American women’s squad, overwhelming favorites for gold at the 2019 Pan American Games, might have found a worthy opponent. Brazil, backstopped by Olympian Victoria Chamorro—familiar with the U.S. roster well from her days playing at USC—frustrated the mighty Americans, causing uncharacteristic misses by an offense that has been deadly efficient for more than a year.

pan_american_logo.svgWithin striking distance—as measured against the world’s best women’s side—a goal by Viviane Bahia had the underdog Brazilians within four early in the third period, and momentum appeared to be shifting. Which, it did—entirely in favor of the Americans, who exploded for fourteen goals in the second half. They ran away with a 20-4 win—their 55th straight—and virtually guaranteed the top spot in Group A for crossover play on Thursday.

Chamorro, who despite being blitzed by an American onslaught of 28 shots performed credibly in the Brazilian cage, acknowledged that her opponents forced the action and a decisive outcome.

“We wanted to play defense and minimize [our] mistakes,” she said about the her team’s strategy. “In the third quarter, we tried to be as focused as we could but, being tired on top of the experience of a [U.S.] team on a really good run… we couldn’t stop our mistakes.”

There’s no denying the U.S. depth

Besides having some of the world’s most skilled players, Team USA also contains some of the most experienced. The Americans boast eight Olympians on their roster of 11, including two—captain Maggie Steffens and Melissa Seidemann—who have been to two Olympics. Stephania Haralabidis, Jamie Neushul and Alys Williams—the three players on the Pan Am squad not part of America’s back-to-back gold-medal efforts in London and Rio—have been honed in a competitive environment cultivated by long-time Head Coach Adam Krikorian.

After the match, Brazilian Head Coach Eduardo Abla could only express admiration for his USA coaching peer and a team that is too big, to fit and perhaps too good for anyone competing at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex.

“Adam’s work is fantastic,” Abla, via a translator, said about Krikorian. “If he can keep renewing the team, they can stay on top for a long time.”

UCLA Athletics - UCLA Women's Water Polo versus the Stanford Cardinal, 2017 MPSF Championship game, Spieker Aquatic Center, UCLA, Los Angeles, CA. April 30th, 2017 Copyright Don Liebig/ASUCLA 170430_WWP_092.NEF

Alys Williams, playing for UCLA. Photo Courtesy: Don Liebig

This competitive advantage is perhaps best typified by Williams. A UCLA graduate, she has been playing with national team programs since 2013 and is now getting her chance to prove she belongs with the world’s best.

“It’s been a long time that I’ve been with this team, so it feels good to be contributing and playing,” she said following the match. Then, commenting on what is a shrinking opportunity to play, given that rosters have been reduced to 11 here and for the Olympics, Williams added: “It’s something that we try not to talk about but it’s inevitable…. What makes us successful is that we’re competing against the best every day in practice.”

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By contrast, Brazil, which fielded a women’s water polo in the Olympics for the first time in 2016, when they hosted the Rio Games, has neither the experience nor the extensive network of club and college programs that has fueled Krikorian’s success. Chamorro, who was the back-up goalie on the Brazilian squad, and Bahia, now the team’s captain, are the only returning players for this current Olympic push.

With an average age of 21 years old—including Ana Beatris Dias, who is 15—it was noteworthy that Brazil kept the U.S. to six goals in the game’s first 16 minutes. Abla instructed his players to play it safe; they dumped the ball on offense five times in the half, and it was apparent that Brazil’s strategy was to keep the score low and hope for the best.

Early on the Americans cooperated, missing scoring opportunities. Steffens, who is usually deadly in front of an opponent’s cage, muffed on a wide-open chance. Early in the first, Maddie Musselman—Krikorian’s go-to scorer—shot over the top of the cage. Two five-meter conversions by Kiley Neushul and Haralabidis put the US up 3-1 after one period, and goals by Seidemann, Neushul and Haralabidis offset a score by Mariana Duarte to make it 6-2 at the half.

After a score by Seidemann early in the half gave the Americans a five-goal advantage, Bahia beat U.S. goalie Ashleigh Johnson on a deflection to create the impression this was a competitive contest. Like a switch turning on a light, Bahia’s score appeared to ignite a slumbering USA attack. Rachel Fattal—whose unselfish, clutch play may make her the most valuable player on the roster—hit back-to-back power-play scores; Makenzie Fischer scored with her team enjoying the man advantage; then Neushul completed her hat trick. Four possessions, four goals, game essentially over.

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Diana Abla from Brazil,left, and Rachel Fattal from USA fight for the ball during the Women’s Water Polo Group Phase match at Polideportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo in the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

USA’s Rachel Fattal pressuring Brazil’s Diana Abla. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

“She just makes everyone around her better,” Williams said of Fattal, her former UCLA teammate. “It’s really special to be around someone like that. It makes you want to work harder.”

Almost impossible to stop

Fischer, who at the 2016 Rio Games was considered a defensive specialist, then went wild on offense. Recently honored with the 2019 Cutino Award as the best female collegiate player in the U.S. the rising Stanford senior hit for a natural hat-trick, beating Chamorro with a variety of skips and slants.

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Leticia Belorio scored two minutes into the fourth period to momentarily stem the American onslaught, but the quarter saw another seven-goal explosion by the reigning Pan Am champions. Seidemann collected two more scores to tie Fischer with a game-high four, Haralabidis completing her hat trick, and Williams—whose defense has been impeccable throughout last month’s World Championships and here in Lima—picked up two goals.

Later today, the U.S. will likely go easy on a Venezuelan side that has been forced to be nomads due to the strife in their country, then will rest up for a day before facing a Peruvian squad that has struggled to compete in their first-ever high-level competition. Brazil’s hopes to advance to the finals rest on their performance in the semifinals; they will likely face a Canadian squad primed to join the Americans in Saturday’s gold medal match.

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Lisbeth Santana Rosa from Cuba, center, and Marcela Rios Elizondo from Mexico fight for the ball during the Women’s Preliminary Group B Water Polo match at Polideportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo in the Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Cuba’s Lisbeth Rosa and Mexico’s Marcela Elizondo, Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

Before this, the Brazilians will need to get past a Puerto Rican squad that downed Venezuela 9-5. Leading the way for Venezuelan coach Gilberto Caceres’ squad was Soleylin Martinez with three goals. Goalie Soleimar Martinez was stalwart in the Venezuelan cage, turning away 10 shots; there will be many more coming later today when the U.S. gets in the water.

Because the Americans have already qualified for the Tokyo Games, whomever joins them in the Pan Am finals will be Olympic-bound. Brazil and Canada are therefore determined to be there in the end, as they win no matter the final score.

Canada wins handily, sews up Group B

The Canadians had little trouble with Peru, winning by the lopsided score of 28-2. Breaking out to a 9-0 lead in the first period—which swelled to 15-0 by intermission—Canada was led by Axelle Crevier’s five goals as they converted 28 of 38 shots. Peru’s Abigail Sirio Urquiza broke up the shutout. Alisa Lopez Deza also tallied for the home team.

On the other side of the bracket, Cuba beat Mexico, with Daniuska Carrasco Leyva scoring four times and goalie Mairelis Zunzunegui Morgan making 14 saves. They will face the Peru in the final match of group play.