USA Men Go Up Big Against Canada, Hold on for Win at Day Two of Pan American Water Polo Action

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Gaelan Geddes Patterson, right, from Canada and Johnathan Hopper from USA fight for the ball during their Men’s Water Polo Group Phase 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 **
Canada's Gaelan Geddes Patterson and USA's Johnathan Hopper in a scrum. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. On Day Two of the 2019 Pan American Games, what at one point looked to be a blowout for the U.S. men’s water polo team turned into a dogfight late against a scrappy Canadian side. Thanks to five goals from Johnny Hooper and a handful of mistakes by Canada, the Americans were able to hold on for dear life and escape the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex with a much-needed 13-11 victory.

pan_american_logo.svgAfter the match, which put his team in a commanding position going into Tuesday’s final Group A match against Puerto Rico, USA head coach Dejan Udovicic was not entirely pleased with his team’s performance.

“The good thing for us is that we won—this is the most important thing,” a relieved Udovicic said after the match, then added: “We lost momentum to finish the game properly. This is something we should be aware of for upcoming games.”

Hooper, brilliant on both sides of the ball, underscored just how vital all the games are at this tournament, including one against a rival eager to trump the Americans.

“Every team—no matter who we play—they’re going to want to qualify for the Olympics,” he said. “When it came down to it, we were able to get the victory we needed.”

Finally, matches not so one-sided

Day One of the tournament, the only competitive match took place at the end, when Argentina beat Mexico by a score of 13-11. Monday, USA vs. Canada was the early men’s match—one which promised to be a tense, competitive contest between two regional rivals both aspiring to the tournament’s biggest prize: a berth in the 2020 Olympic Games.

The Americans struck first on a goal by Ben Hallock. But the Canadians then reeled off scores on three straight possessions. Aleksa Gardijan, Nicolas Constantin-Bicari and Gaelan Geddes Patterson all beat U.S. goalie Alex Wolf, giving Canada a 3-1 lead.

Even with the lead, early indicators for Canada were not good, especially when Georgios Torakis—one of the more experienced player on a relatively young roster—quickly picked up a second exclusion late in the first period.

The American’s Max Irving added to the Canadians’ misery, closing out the first period with two twisting skip shots that eluded Canadian keeper Milan Radenovic and gave his team a 4 – 3 lead.

For a period that had only two scores—one by each side—the second frame was action-packed and exceptionally physical, characteristic of two teams with  a lot to play for. When Constantin-Bicari was called for his second exclusion two minutes into the period, Canadian Head Coach Giuseppe Porzio waved his arms in disgust as his top player swam to the sidelines.

17-07-2019: WK waterpolo: USA v Kroatia: Gwangju Team USA Gwangju South Korea 17/07/2019 Waterpolo M10 USA - CRO 18th FINA World Aquatics Championships Nambu University Grounds Orange Pictures / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Unity is a important feature of the U.S. approach to winning here in Lima. Photo Courtesy: Orange Pictures

But, his team rallied without their star. Jeremie Cote, who bedeviled the Americans all game, struck for the first of his three goals with almost five minutes gone in the period, knotting the score at 4. Hooper unknotted it less than two minutes later, scoring with his team a man-up, and ensuring a 5-4 U.S. lead after two periods.

At the half, both teams had regrets about missed opportunities. The Americans could look to a number of near-misses. Alex Bowen, the team’s top striker, hit multiple posts, while Luca Cupido beat Radenovic with a cross-cage shot, only to be denied by the post. Wolf looked shaky in his cage, especially on Cote’s tying shot in the second.

The Canadians could gripe about multiple exclusions to Constantin-Bicari and Torakis—who was rolled after drawing his third foul with two minutes to go in the half. But they also had to chide themselves for poor decision-making, including American captain Jesse Smith goading Constantin-Bicari into a dumb foul.

Americans shine… then falter

In the third, the U.S. took full advantage of their opponent’s foul trouble, scoring on their first three possessions, part of a surge to a five goal lead. Single goals by Hallock, Bowen, Hannes Daube and two by Hooper—including of a brilliant mid-tank theft from Canada’s Reuel D’souza—offset a strike by Cote and gave Team USA what appeared to be a commanding lead.

“I knew we had to come up with something big… and I didn’t want the momentum to change,” Hooper said of his steal and score; he pounced after D’souza took his eye off the ball for a moment, making a huge play for the U.S.

But Hooper and his teammates couldn’t stand their prosperity. A host of defensive miscues—coupled with a determined Canadian rally—almost sunk the Americans. First, Gardijan executed a beautiful tip in front with his team on the power play. Then, Matthew Halajian beat Wolf from the top of cage. Following a Cupido blast from six-meters, Constantin-Bicari beat Wolf from the left of the cage with second remaining in the frame, drawing his team within three and causing the hearts of American fans to beat wildly with anxiety.

The Canadian rally was not dampened when Constantin-Bicari drew his third and final exclusion two minutes into the fourth quarter. A half minute later, Cote beat a confused American defense to make it 11-9. Hooper gave his team some breathing room, scoring with the U.S. up two men, but Halajian again beat Wolf with a blast from six meters. When D’souza atoned for his earlier mistake, converting a five-meter penalty, it was a one goal match with two and a half minutes to play.

“We were in the game until the end and had a big chance for a win,” Porzio, the Canadian coach said, then lamented how fouls hurt his team. ”We played with a lot of players with two fouls; I think we lost four players to [exclusions].”

“It was not easy to manage this situation,” he added.

Lima, Monday, August 5, 2019 - Nicolas Constantin-Bicari, left, from Canada reacts to the referee’s call during their Men’s Water Polo Group Phase match against the USA 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 **

Canada’s Nicolas Constantin-Bicari can’t believe the call. Photo Courtesy: Marcos Brindicci / Lima 2019

With scattered chants of “Let’s Go Canada” echoing in the del Triunfo Aquatics Complex, Hooper calmly converted on a five-meter shot, silencing the opposing crowd and fortifying the hopes of the American faithful looking for a successful conclusion to the match—and this tournament, with it’s Olympian grand prize.

“We need to remind ourselves: this is a very young team,” Udovicic said. “Winning this tournament, qualifying for the Olympics—we need to deal with this pressure.

“When we figure [out] how to control ourselves, we should be fine.”

Next up for Team USA: Brazil, a 10-8 loser to Cuba in action later in the day. The Canadians will face the Cubans and look to rebound from a difficult—but not fatal, when it comes to their title hopes—loss.

“Critical mistakes at key points in the game changed the momentum,” Constantin-Bicari explained after the match. “But, we still have a few days to go through videos, get prepared for semifinals, finals—and get ready for tomorrow against Cuba.

Brazil marches on

In Group B action, the Brazilians, another key aspirant for a 2020 Tokyo berth, had little trouble with Mexico, winning 10-5. Leading the way for the squad, now helmed by Ricardo Azevedo, who recently replaced Angelo Coelho as head coach, was Gustavo Guimaraes with three goals. Goalie Slobodan Soro, the team’s captain, was rarely tested, making five saves as Mexico’s Oliver Basillo Alvarez and Diego Loza Mercado had two goals apiece.

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The win almost certainly gives the group to Brazil, which means they will likely face Puerto Rico, in crossover play on Thursday. The rest of Group B play saw Argentina double-up the host Peruvians, winning 12-6. This means—baring a major upset today—the Argentines will avoid the Americans in the cross-over round and it will be Peru that draws the short straw and face Team USA on Thursday.

Peru, which is fielding men’s and women’s polo teams in the Pan American Games for the first time, got goals from Germán Carranza-Rodriguez, Diego Osterling-Villar, Eduardo Cárdenas Grández and Augusto Otero to make for a competitive match—perhaps the only chance the home team had in this tournament to get a win.