As Expected, USA Women Dominate Peru, Advance to 2019 Pan Am Semifinals against Cuba

Lima, Thursday August 08, 2019 - Female players from USA team and Peru celebrate after the match in Women's Quarterfinal Water Polo at Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **
Peruvian and USA women gather after their quarterfinal match in the 2019 Pan American games. Photo Courtesy: Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019

LIMA, PERU. The USA women were in a tough spot. Playing in a quarterfinal water polo match at the 2019 Pan American Games—a day after they gave their Olympic goalie field practice as a hedge against injury—they were facing an over-matched Peru squad whose players’ average age is under 18.

pan_american_logo.svgThe world’s most dominant program, there is often a fine balance for the Americans to tread. In this case it was: Bring the “A” game and crush a nascent program, or reign in their competitive fire and give the Peruvians a chance to, well, compete.

That the American women took the latter option might come as a surprise to some longtime observers of this extremely physical sport. With an almost casual 21-3 victory, Team USA extended its winning streak to 57 matches—with no apparent end in sight. As his squad mostly played keep away, U.S. Head Coach Adam Krikorian was able to freely rotate his players around, including goalie Ashleigh Johnson, who escaped her cage and score a goals for the second straight day. And—not to be lost in what ultimately was a feel-good moment—the USA advanced to the semifinals, where they will face Cuba.

In the other side of the women’s bracket, Brazil downed Mexico 13-3 while Canada blitzed Venezuela 22-3. They will meet Friday morning at the Villa Maria del Triunfo Aquatics Complex before the Americans take on the Cubans, who beat Puerto Rico 14-5. The final—which carries with it a berth in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo—will be held Saturday.

Hard to keep the score down

This predicament for Krikorian and his players is not unfamiliar, especially over the past few weeks. The Peruvian men’s and women’s teams are competing in Pan American play for the first time ever, and it’s clear that might be challenged qualifying for the 18U finals at JOs, let alone competing with some of the best teams in the hemisphere.

[On The Record with Augusto Otero, Captain, Peruvian Men’s Water Polo Team]

In the recently complete 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships, South Korea fielded men’s and women’s teams—though “fielded” may be too strong a word, particularly after their women’s side was absolutely demolished 64-0 by Hungary in their first-ever match in World Championship play—prompting tears of joy (or relief) when they finally scored in the next game.

Lima, Thursday August 08, 2019 - Kiley Neushul (L) and Goalkeeper, Ashleig Johnson (R), from USA team play against players from Peru team in Women's Quarterfinal Water Polo match at Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Double-take? Makenzie Fisher in goal—and Ashleigh Johnson in the field. Photo Courtesy: Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019

Dan Klatt is Krikorian’s top assistant and has been on the bench for both Olympic gold-medal efforts —London in 2012, and Rio in 2016. He’s seen how the Americans have separated themselves from the pack—and understands that sometimes the goal is not to score as many times as possible.

“We set specific goals for ourselves which we have to accomplish throughout the game and it keeps them focused,” Klatt said after the match. “At the same time, we try to respect the game the best way we possibly can.”

“Respecting the game” would be a key concept for Klatt, who played for legendary UC Irvine coach Ted Newland, a stickler for both preparation and competition. And respect the game the Americans certainly did. They didn’t press their young opponents, nor did they relentlessly counter them. A first period score of 5-1 turned into 11-2 at the half, 17-2 after three and then a relatively reasonable final score.

[Passages: Ted Newland, Coach Emeritus of UC Irvine Men’s Water Polo, Passes Away at 91]

Klatt acknowledged that perhaps the real accomplishment for the Peruvians was gaining experience against a superb American side.

“Those girls probably want the opportunity to play against the best, so we want to showcase some of those skills,” he added.

Americans leave their opponents star-struck

In compiling their win streak—the longest of the Olympic Era—Team USA has beaten every top team multiple times. In that time, only the Italians and the Australians, responsible for America’s last loss in April of 2018, have come close to winning.

With the win today, the Americans add Peru, in the first-ever contest between the teams, to their winning ledger. But there was more to this match than wins and losses. The Peruvians competed against the world’s best and were grateful for that.

Alisa Lopez Deza, who scored a hat-trick, was star-struck to have played against the famous Americans, including getting a goal off of Johnson.

“To score on [Johnson] the USA goalkeeper who is one of the best in the world is amazing,” she said after the match. “It feels so good to be here.”

Then acknowledging a reality that will likely sink in once this tournament is over, she added.

“In Peru, there’s no water polo culture… [but] we’re trying to make this sport grow more and more every year.”

Nizerrat Gauthier Asmat, the precious Peruvian who on Sunday scored the first-ever goal in Peruvian play at the Pan Ams, still feels the euphoria of representing her country in international competition.

[USA Women Open with Decisive Water Polo Win But Peru’s Gauthier-Asmat Is Story of Pan American Games 1st Day]

“Playing with USA is a once in a lifetime opportunity,” she said. “We wanted to try some things [defensively] and I think we did pretty well.”

Lima, Thursday August 08, 2019 - Alys Williams (10) from USA play against Ariana Burga (11) from Peru in Women's Quarterfinal Water Polo match at Complejo Deportivo Villa Maria del Triunfo during Pan American Games Lima 2019. Copyright Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019 Mandatory credits: Lima 2019 ** NO SALES ** NO ARCHIVES **

Peruvian players surround USA’s Alys Williams during their quarterfinal match. Photo Courtesy: Vidal Tarqui / Lima 2019

Then, in a mark of maturity despite her youth, the 15-year-old Gauthier Asmat expressed a desire to better represent her country.

“I think I can do better and I wasn’t too fast in the water because [I thought]: It’s USA! I hope next time I’ll be able to contribute more to our team.,” she added. “I think I can give more, and I really want to because I’m on the national team.”

Afterwards, Maddie Musselman—who at 18 was one of the youngest water polo players at the Rio Olympics—expressed sympathy to the challenges faced by Peru water polo. She imagined how some of the young women on the other team might respond to playing the mighty Americans.

“Just the opportunity all around for that team is really unique—to play one of the best teams in the world, all while you’re developing your own young team,” she said after the match. “Being young, there’s a lot of potential, but you just have to know that and got out there and play.”

She expressed positive feelings for the Peruvians—but then the competitive drive that has made the Americans so successful surfaced.

“To see them hit a couple of shots was really cool for us,” Musselman said, then added: “even though we don’t want any in there.”