The US men’s water polo team prepared for the Olympics like a champion. It won’t be leaving London as one.
Croatia put an early end to the Americans’ Olympic campaign on Wednesday with a sterling performance at both ends of the pool, slicing through the US defense with pinpoint shooting and shutting down the American attack behind a strong outing from goalkeeper Josip Pavic.
The 8-2 quarterfinal loss was especially bitter for a veteran US squad that spent seven months together this year training six days a week with the firm belief that if any team could win the country’s first Olympic gold in the sport since 1904, this was the one.
"I’m really searching for answers," U.S. center forward Ryan Bailey said. "We had a great training, we’ve been together for seven to eight months training, just ourselves, getting in great shape. Physically we’re fantastic, best we’ve ever been. And then we came out and kind of laid an egg in some of these games. I have no excuses.
"We came into this Olympics wanting and thinking that we would win a medal, and we really haven’t performed. I don’t take anything away from Croatia, those guys played their butts off and played great defense and completely shut us down on six-on-five. They’re a great team, but we just didn’t have it today."
The Americans didn’t have it Wednesday, nor really any other day at the London Olympics. Other than an opening 8-7 win against Montenegro, a veteran US team that boasts 10 players from the 2008 squad never really showed up in London, struggling defensively and sputtering in big games offensively.
After their opening victory, they played well enough to win their next two preliminary-stage games, but those came against the group’s weakest teams, Romania and Britain. Then came the heavyweights, Serbia and Hungary, who exposed the cracks in front of the American goal to hand the US two straight losses, dropping the team to the No. 4 seed and setting up the quarterfinal matchup against undefeated Croatia.
And on Wednesday against a Croatia team considered one of the leading medal contenders, things only got worse.
The Croats jumped out to a 5-0 lead by halftime with ferocious defense on one end of the pool and efficient shooting on the other. The Americans clawed back to 5-2 halfway through the third quarter, but Miho Boskovic responded for Croatia with his second goal before Sandro Sukno added another with four seconds left in the quarter to put the game out of reach.
"We came out hard, we played hard — I can’t fault the effort out there — it’s just our shots weren’t falling today and sometimes that’s how it goes,” Bailey said. ”You hope it’s not in the quarterfinals of the Olympics, but sometimes that’s how it happens."
The loss brings an end to the international career of many of the Americans, Bailey’s included, and starts what will likely be a bit of a rebuilding phase for the US team.
"We’re going to lose a number of these guys, a number of them are going to retire, and the next generation is going to have some big footprints to fill in," U.S. coach Terry Schroeder said. "We chose a team that was an older team, and thought that experience would give us our best chance, but it didn’t work out."
Croatia moves on to the semifinals, where it will face a talented Montenegro team that beat Spain 11-9 earlier Wednesday to reach its second straight Olympic semifinal.
Italy, meanwhile, brought an end to Hungary’s decade-long domination of Olympic water polo, upsetting the three-time defending champions 11-9 to advanced to the semifinals.
Captain Maurizio Felugo put the game away late for the Italians, slotting home a long-distance shot to hold off a Hungarian surge in the fourth quarter and give Italy a two-goal cushion with 58 seconds to go.
"We played at the highest level," Felugo said. "We know that we work very hard and this is the way we like it. The way we play water polo is the way others try to play."
Italy will next play gold medal-favorite Serbia, which survived a scare from Australia. That game will be a rematch of the 2011 world championship final that Italy won 8-7.
For Hungary, the loss brings an end to a golden era for the traditional power in the sport.
"I feel empty. I didn’t expect this game," said Tamas Kasas, who won three golds for Hungary. "We didn’t play well. Maybe they were stronger in the head today, and congratulations for them. It was a tough loss."