NEWPORT BEACH — The home-pool advantage was as welcome as ever for the U.S. men's national water polo team on Saturday. But the six-on-five advantage was another matter in a 8-7 exhibition loss to Croatia at Newport Harbor High.
Team USA converted just two of 13 power-play chances, while Croatia converted one of three six-on-five situations, and added two goals on penalty shots.
The visitors, ranked No. 3 in the latest world rankings, three spots better than the Americans, who have largely the same roster that produced a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, got five of their eight goals from players who were not on their roster in Beijing.
Conversely, the Americans, including three former UC Irvine standouts as well as Corona del Mar High product John Mann, received only one goal (Shea Buckner) and one assist (Brian Alexander) from those not on the 2008 silver medal squad.
Captain Tony Azevedo and Adam Wright had two goals and one assist apiece for Team USA, which will face three-time-defending Olympic champion Hungary Sunday at noon in the three-team exhibition series designed to help teams tune up for the London Olympics.
Ryan Bailey, a former UCI All-American, had one goal, while former Anteater Tim Hutten contributed an assist. UCI product Jeff Powers added experience for the Americans, coached by Terry Schroeder.
"They key was our inability to score in six-on-five opportunities," Schroeder said. "We did enough good things to win the game, we just didn't score the ball when we had the chance. To win a medal [in London], we're going to have to do well with the six-on-five percentages, and be able to stop opponents when they have the man advantage."
Bailey, a three-time Olympian who is an assistant boys' coach at CdM High, said there were other factors behind the disappointing loss.
"Croatia is a fantastic team," Bailey said. "We haven't played many games, so this was a great opportunity for us to play against guys who have played games this year, because they play in the Croatian League. So, we're disappointed we didn't win for the home crowd, but it's not a big disappointment."
Bailey, who was frequently smothered at his center position, making it difficult for the Americans to get higher-percentage shots, credited the defense of the visitors.
"The Croatians are just a good defensive team and they are huge guys, who are really strong and physical," said the 6-foot-6, 245-pound Bailey, whose only goal, a tip-in on a pass from Hutten, pulled the Americans even, 5-5, with 2:56 left in the third period. "It's an adjustment for us, for sure. Like I said, we haven't played many games. So, every time we get a chance to go against these guys, it's a great opportunity to get better."
After trailing, 3-0, following the first eight-minute period, Team USA battled back to tie it at 3-3 with 4:33 left before halftime. Then, after Croatia regained a two-goal advantage, Azevedo scored to pull the hosts within one at halftime.
But after Bailey's goal pulled his team even, the Croatians scored twice and led the rest of the way.
After Buckner tipped in an assist from Wright to finalize the scoring with 1:13 left, the two teams traded turnovers on their ensuing possessions.
After Wright stole a pass at his defensive end with nine seconds left, the Americans managed two shots in the final four seconds. But Peter Varellas' skip shot was deflected over the cage by goalie Frano Vican, who then stopped a shot from the point by Azevedo before time expired.
The overflow crowd began chanting "U-S-A, U-S-A," after Mann's goal, but the American rooters were not rewarded with the victory.
"It was awesome," Schroeder said of the supportive turnout. "We don't get too many chances to do this and to have a crowd like this down in Newport, it was fantastic. Hopefully, there will be more of it Sunday and Monday."
Croatia battles Hungary in the only game Monday at 5 p.m.
Both teams had 22 shots, while the 13 combined saves by two Croatian goalies were two more than American goalie Merrill Moses' total.
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