July 28, 2003
BARCELONA, SPAIN - The U.S. men's water polo team was edged, 9-8, by defending World Champion Spain in the fifth place game at the 2003 FINA World Championships at Club Natacio Barcelona today (July 25). The sixth place finish equals the team's placing at the Worlds in Rome in 1994. The team, who made a strong showing the entire week, is in peak physical condition and stands poised to tackle the field at the Pan American Games (Aug. 3-11). The fifth place finish for Spain was its lowest since 1986 when it took that spot behind the U.S. team.
Gustavo Marcos brought the 2,500-plus crowd to its feet early, scoring the first goal of the game on a backhand on the first possession of the game for Spain. Tony Azevedo (Long Beach, CA/Stanford/Long Beach Shore) made good on a one-on-one opportunity at the 5:53 mark, skipping one past Spanish veteran goalkeeper Jesus Rollan from two-meters out. Consecutive goals by Spain made it a 3-1 U.S. deficit, but it didn't last long. Jesse Smith (Coronado, CA/Pepperdine/Malibu Water Polo) took a pass from Adam Wright (Seal Beach, CA/UCLA/New York Athletic Club) and knocked it in off of the left post at 3:54 to make it 3-2. Smith assisted on a goal to Jeff Powers (San Luis Obispo, CA/UC Irvine/Newport Water Polo) at 1:21 to even it at 3-3 heading into the second.
USA driver Brett Ormsby (El Cajon, CA/UCLA/Bruin Water Polo) shattered the tie in fine fashion midway through the second quarter, hammering in an extra-man goal from the left side to make it a 4-3 USA lead. Spain's Danny Ballart connected from the perimeter past a series of potential field blocks at 1:55, knotting the score again at 4-4. The U.S. bounced back again, getting a goal in transition from Smith, his second, to reclaim the lead, but fan favorite Ivan Perez whaled home a backhand with 14 seconds remaining in the half to make it 5-5.
Perez scored an uncontested goal after drawing an ejection with 4:53 left in the third quarter amidst some confusion on where the ball would be placed after the whistle. USA's Dan Klatt (Fresno, CA/UC Irvine/Newport Water Polo) tapped in a goal on the next trip down-tank to tie the score at 6-6. Perez faked a sweep shot before burying a backhand from the hole for his third goal of the day at the 2:48 mark to give Spain a 7-6 lead, but Azevedo recovered the goal for the U.S. in the final seconds of the quarter, going over Rollan's head from six meters out.
With 4:45 left in the game, Perez had an extra-man goal taken away when Spanish coach Juan Jane signaled for a timeout just before the shot was away. At 4:24, Azevedo was whistled for a penalty, the referee indicating that he had blocked a shot in the field with both hands. Ballart buried the ensuing penalty throw to give the Spaniards an 8-7 lead. Ballart gave his team a two-goal edge with 2:48 to play on a lob goal from the top. Team USA managed to draw an exclusion with under two minutes to go. Wolf Wigo's (New York, NY/Stanford/New York Athletic Club/Ethnikos Piraeus) shot from the perimeter went off the top bar and straight down before being knocked safely away by Rollan to hold the score at 9-7. With one-tenth of a second left in the game, Bailey drew a four-meter penalty at set and buried the free throw with authority to cap the scoring at 9-8.
Despite the loss, the U.S. still walks away as one of the field's most markedly improved teams, raising some eyebrows on the international scene and earning some well-deserved respect from its European counterparts.
"I thought we could have done a lot better," said Smith, who finished with two goals. "I think that we've improved a lot on our defense and that if we work on a few things on offense, we're going to be a tough team to beat."
"If you look at some of our scores from last World Championships, we were kind of getting blasted in our bracket, but this time around we were able to compete with the good teams," said Klatt. "The difference is that we have to work on those big-game, crunch-time scenarios so that instead of falling one or two goals short, we're winning by one or two goals. The work that we've put in to this point has brought us this far, so we've gotta work just that much harder to get to the next level."
The U.S. will now move on to its biggest task of the summer...qualifying for the 2004 Olympic Games. To do so, the team will have to post a gold medal finish at the 2003 Pan American Games, which run from Aug. 3-11 in the Dominican Republic.
"Pan Ams has been the focus the entire time," said Klatt. "We came here to get ourselves some more high level experience and get ready for that. It's a big deal and everybody's still excited and pumped about Pan Ams. I think we're ready for that."
Team USA will take to the skies again tomorrow (July 27) morning, bound for Florida for team processing and outfitting.