US men stumble into Olympic water polo quarters
After a quick start at the Olympics, the U.S. men's water polo team is slowing down at the wrong time.
Norbert Hosnyanszky scored three times and defending champion Hungary beat the U.S. 11-6 to close out the preliminary stage. The defeat - the Americans' second straight in London - exposed a simple problem that has turned urgent for the U.S. with a quarterfinal matchup against undefeated Croatia looming on Wednesday.
''Look, it's defense, that's it,'' captain Tony Azevedo said. ''Six goals is not enough, but that's fine. But when on defense you can't make a stop, you can't expect to win. Defense is the part of the game that's really the easiest to change. It's heart and it's passion, and right now we're not playing with it, and I honestly can't tell you why.''
With both teams already into the quarterfinals, the only thing on the line for the U.S. and Hungary in Monday's game was a better seed for the knockout stage.
But Hungary, which has also had its own defensive struggles in London, came out sharp, shutting the U.S. out in a tight first quarter before breaking the game open early in the second with three goals in quick succession to seize the momentum and a 4-0 lead.
Azevedo converted a penalty to pull one back, but the Americans never looked capable of truly cracking a Hungarian defense that clearly wanted to prove itself after a string of shaky performances - and the country's first two losses at the Olympics in 12 years - earlier in the preliminary stage.
''This was our best match of the tournament and I'm very happy about this performance and our defense was perfect,'' Hungary star Tamas Kasas said. ''We have to immediately forget this match and look to the next one in two days because that will be more important. We have a chance. The team is very good now but we have to continue on this road.''
The U.S., meanwhile, needs to change course.
Since opening the Olympics with a tight victory against fellow medal contender Montenegro, the U.S. team has been far from perfect. It played just well enough to beat the two weakest sides in its group, Romania and Britain.
Then came water polo heavyweights Serbia and Hungary, who took advantage of the cracks in the American defense to hand the U.S. two losses to close out the group stage just as the games start to mean something.
''The first quarter tonight was very good,'' U.S. coach Terry Schroeder said. ''We were down 1-0 but we had our chances and we were playing strong defense. We just haven't been able to sustain that for four quarters, and until we do - our backs are against the wall - we're not going to beat any of these good teams.''
With 10 players back from the 2008 team that lost to Hungary 14-10 in the final at the Beijing Olympics, the U.S. came into this year's games with hopes of going one better and winning the Americans' first gold in water polo since 1904.
Now, those hopes appear perilously close to coming to an early end.
''We trained hard for this, and we're here in this moment and we're not performing like we should,'' Schroeder said. ''I take that on my shoulders. We have to go back and figure out how to get these guys motivated for the next game.''
Hungary moved up to the third seed in Group B, and in the knockout stage plays Italy, which beat Spain on Monday to finish second in Group A.
The U.S. dropped to the No. 4 seed with the loss, setting up a quarterfinal matchup Wednesday with Group A winner Croatia, who closed out the preliminary stage Monday with an easy 12-4 win.
Croatia's Niksa Dobud said the preliminary matches are meaningless.
''If we lose there we go home, so we need to be good at the right time in the quarterfinal and then we go for medals,'' he said, ''and that's the reason we came here.''
Earlier, Australia filled out the quarterfinal bracket, advancing to the knockout stage by upsetting Greece 13-8 behind three goals from Rhys Howden.
Needing a victory to advance to the quarterfinals, Australia used a five-goal second quarter to grab an 8-5 lead by halftime, then scored the first three goals after the break to extend it to 11-5. Greece, which could have advanced with just a draw, never recovered.
As the No. 4 seed out of Group A, Australia will play Serbia, which beat Kazakhstan 12-4 to win Group B, in the knockout stage.
The fourth quarterfinal pits Montenegro against Spain.
Ryan Lucas can be reached on twitter at www.twitter.com/relucasz