US Women’s Water Polo Team on Cusp Of Qualifying for 2020 Tokyo Olympics

epa06091016 Rachel Fattal (rear) of the US challenges Carly Joy Faulmann of South Africa for the ball during the women's water polo Group B first round match between South Africa and the USA of the FINA Swimming World Championships 2017 in Budapest, Hungary, 16 July 2017. EPA/SZILARD KOSZTICSAK HUNGARY OUT
USA's Rachel Fattal may not get all the glory but she's a big part the team's impressive haul of golds. Photo Courtesy: Szilard Koszticsak

Editor’s Note: With a 10-9 win Sunday over Italy in the 2019 FINA World League SuperFinal title match, the U.S. women’s water polo team qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Extending a half-decade of dominance, the US Senior Women’s Water Polo Team is on the verge of qualifying for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics a year early. On Saturday at Budapest’s Duna Arena, the Americans extinguished a the hopes of a talented Netherlands. Sprinting out to a 6-3 halftime advantage, behind Ashleigh Johnson (10 saves) they held off a late Dutch charge for an 8-6 semifinal win in the 2019 FINA World League SuperFinal.

usawpWith the win, the U.S. (5-0) advances to the finals against a similarly undefeated Italian team, which went to a shoot-out before defeating Russia by a 13-12 score. The SuperFinal title tilt is at 2:15 p.m. (EST) / 11:15 a.m. (PST). Live streaming and replays are available of all matches on FINA TV at FINAtv.live (subscription required).

The gold medal match at this tournament is a replay of the 2016 Olympic final, a 12-5 win for the Americans. Today’s winner will automatically qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, leaving more than ample time to prepare for the sport’s most prestigious competition.

Leading the way for Head Coach Adam Krikorian’s squad with two goals apiece were Maddie Musselman—who has registered 12 scores so far in the tournament—and captain Maggie Steffens. Their efforts helped the U.S. continued a string of success against a Dutch side eager to return to the Olympics for the first time since capturing gold in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

A win today will not only extend a number of impressive American streaks: a 42-match win streak that dates back more than a year, and a tournament win streak that totals 10-straight dating back to 2014.

Success years in the making

The team competing in Hungary is not only the world’s best, it’s one of the deepest. It boasts ten veterans from the 2016 squad that captured gold in the Rio Olympics, including Rachel Fattal, Johnson, Musselman and Steffens, arguably some of the greatest performers in U.S. women’s water polo history.

Already the possessor of two Olympic golds and deep into preparation for a third run to glory, Steffens is universally acknowledged as the world’s strongest female polo player—and certainly merits consideration as the greatest of all time. Musselman, who just finished another 50+ goal season for UCLA, has proven capable not only of explosive scoring outbursts, but she’s as reliable an offensive option as there is in the world.

Fattal, Musselman’s former Bruin teammate, is perhaps the most unsung of this esteemed quartet. A winner at almost every level, she does the things necessary for her teammates to succeed—an invaluable but sometimes underrated trait. Having the athletic and aggressive Johnson on its backline allows the U.S. women the confidence to push the offensive envelope, knowing that their goalie has the ability to cover most defensive lapses.

December 22, 2018; El Torro High School, Lake Forest, CA, USA; USA Water Polo Women's Water Polo Exhibition Series: USA vs Netherlands; USA Paige Hauschild pressures Netherlands Simone van der Kraats Photo credit: Catharyn Hayne

Paige Hauschild—one of the world’s best 19 year olds—is fighting to crack Krikorian’s line-up. Photo Courtesy: Catharyn Hayne

In the run-up to the gold medal match of the Super Final, this core prevailed against Hungary, Russia and Holland—three of the world’s strongest squad. While none were blow-outs—the American’s average margin of victory was three goals—the reality is that a dominant U.S. program currently has no peer.

Then there’s the subs…

Italy will pose challenges—and Krikorian would never underestimate any opponent, especially given how difficult it is for any dynasty to persevere. But, the biggest battle at this tournament may be who besides the returning Olympians will make the cut for Tokyo. With rosters reduced to 11 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) it’s entirely possible that only one newcomer will join the roster. Candidates for this final spot are all in Budapest: goalie Amanda Longan and attackers Paige Hauschild, Stephania Haralabidis, Jordan Raney and Alys Williams.

This group represents the American’s greatest strength: depth. Likely starters for any other national teams, this group will push the top of Krikorian’s roster to maintain their spots—or lose out on what is likely to be another gold medal party, equaling the Hungarian dynasty from earlier this century. That squad won Olympic titles in 2000, 2004 and 2008. Now the U.S. looks poised to equal a feat that likely appeared unimaginable—certainly not a decade ago when losing a bitterly contested final to the Dutch at the 2008 Beijing Games.

No matter how the Americans fare today in Budapest, the pattern for another deep Olympic run is now set—and anyone who manages to beat Krikorian and his squad will have achieved one of the bigger upsets in recent polo history.