Upsets Roil FINA Women’s World Water Polo Quarterfinals—But Not USA Women

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Spain's Anni Espar I Llaquet (2 goals) helped her team to the 18th FINA Worlds quarterfinals. Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura / FINA

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Sunday morning at the 2019 FINA World Aquatic Championship, it was possible to anticipate that Holland might advance to face Italy, and that Russia would play the United States in the World Water Polo Championship semifinals. By evening, after all four quarterfinal matches were complete, a series of upsets completely changed any expected order. Australia, led by captain Rowie Webster’s three goals, edged favored Russia 9-7, while Hungary, with Greta Gurisatti and Dora Leimeter registering two goals each, knocked off undefeated Italy 7-6.

fina-gwangju-jul19In the other two quarterfinals, Team USA prevailed 15-5 over Greece behind Maddie Musselman’s four scores, while Spain, which had recently lost to Holland in a semifinal at the 2019 Europa Cup, turned the tables on the Dutch, breaking out to an early five-goal lead and coasting to a 12-8 win.

The action at an overcast Nambu University Municipal Aquatics Center in Gwangju, South Korea set the stage for semifinal match-ups where the U.S. will take on long-time foe Australia on one side of the bracket, while Spain and Hungary will battle it out in the other.

Team USA over Greece was predictable

In their match against the Greeks, the Americans were facing an opponent who they had recently dominated in a series of friendlies in Southern California. Add in the fact that goalie Chrysi Diamantopoulou—who backstopped Greece to silver in the 2018 European Women’s Championships—is out with an injury, and it’s a tough road for head coach Giorgos Morfesis’ squad to qualify for the 2020 Olympics. One such Tokyo berth is waiting for the winner of this tournament, though every round that Team USA advances, it becomes more likely that they will capture a third-straight FINA Worlds title. Given they already qualified for the Games by virtue of a title last month at the FINA World Super League Final, whomever joins the Americans in the championship match here in Gwangju will automatically be in, no matter how they do.

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

It won’t be Greece. In the game’s first ten minutes they started off sluggishly against Ashleigh Johnson and the American defense, missing their first five shots and committing five turnovers. This encouraged a feeding frenzy for head coach Adam Krikorian’s side—and they pounced. Alys Williams opened the scoring two minutes in, then Aria Fischer, her sister Mackenzie (twice) and Kiley Neushul beat Greek goalie Ioanna Stamatopoulou. Just like that it was 5-0 Team USA—and looking to be a long afternoon for Morfesis and his players.

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Can the Aussies blunt the USA juggernaut? Tuesday will tell! Photo Courtesy: Hiroyuki Nakamura / FINA

Starting at 5:41 remaining in the second period, the Greeks enjoyed a brief comeback, with Eleni Xenaki and Nikoleta Eleftheriadou beating Johnson. But the Americans mounted a counter attack, with Stephania Haralabidis—who until 2017 was playing for her native Greece, when she switched to Team USA—captain Maggie Steffens and Rachel Fattal putting their opponents in a six-goal hole at intermission.

Midway through the third period, Eleftheriadou and Xenaki scored to slice the U.S. lead to four, but another multiple goal outburst—Williams, Aria Fischer, Musselman and Kaleigh Gilchrist pushed the lead to eight. Capping off the scoring was Melissa Seidemann, who at 29 is the oldest player on Krikorian’s roster, and perhaps one of the most valuable. She splits time with Aria Fisher at set but has scoring ability from the perimeter, which she demonstrated with a strike past Stamatopoulou.

The rest of the bracket? Who can say

The Australia win over the Russians has to be counted as big an upset as their male counterparts’ win Sunday against might Montenegro. The Stingers built a 4-1 lead on the strength of goals Hannah Buckling (twice), Zoe Arancini and a penalty shot by Webster with nine seconds to go in the half. Russia rallied twice to cut their deficit to a single score, then midway through the fourth period, a goal by Evgeniya Ivanova tied the match at six.

[18th FINA World Water Polo Championships: The Russians Are Coming!]

Showing true resolve, the Australians scored three times in the next minute and a half, including another successful penalty conversion by their captain, who at 32 is one of the oldest women in the tournament. The spurt put away the pesky Russians and booked a date on Tuesday with the Americans and their 51-match win streak. For those keeping score, the only two losses Team USA has suffered in the last two years have come at the hands of the Stingers. Their quarterfinal match up—available through the Olympic Channel—should be a fantastic contest between two teams who know each other well.

The other semifinal features a Spanish team yet to be tested and a Hungarian side which had posted historic scoring totals—91 goals in three games, including an all-time record of 64 against host South Korea—then relied on defense to upset an undefeated Italian side. Goalie Edina Gangl (eight saves) and her defense shut down Ariann Garibotti (0-5 on shot attempts) after Anna Illes, Leimeter, Gurisatti and captain Rita Keszthelyi propelled the Hungarians to 4-2 lead in the first period and then they held on. The Italians did not help their cause, shooting an abysmal 23% (6 of 26) including 3 of 11 with the man advantage.

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Holland’s Maartje Keuning in action against New Zealand & out of the running for FINA hardware. Photo Courtesy: Wataru Ninomiya / FINA

Waiting for Head Coach Attila Biro’s squad are a Spanish side that tagged Holland with a 12-8 loss, deepening the enigma that are the Dutch women. Despite playing a team-high 26 minutes, striker Maud Megens took only two shots—both misses—leaving the scoring load to Sabrina Van Der Sloot. The 2018 Swimming World Female Polo Player of the Year did not disappoint, scoring three goals on four shots, but the 6-1 deficit the Dutch found themselves in after one period was simply too much to overcome.

[Catching up with Attila Biro, Hungarian Women’s Coach]

21-year-old goalie Joanne Koenders was blitzed by Roser Tarrago, Anni Espar I Llaquet (two goals), Maica Garcia Godoy (two) and Beatrice Ortiz Munoz before Holland coach Arno Havenga mercifully pulled her after a single period. Sarah Buis came on in relief, but the damage was done. The Dutch got as close as four a couple of times in the fourth period, when Garcia Godoy and Judith Forca Ariza closed out the scoring for Spain—and, for the moment, Dutch chances of qualifying for their first Olympics since 2008.

The Americans know they’re in; in another day, the world will know who will join them and the host Japanese as one of ten women’s teams qualified for Tokyo.