Historic men's water polo win for Team USA

NEWPORT BEACH — On this day, the power play was working for the U.S. men's water polo national team.

In roughly two months, Team USA hopes to make an Olympic power play on an even bigger stage in London.

Momentum could be gained from a good result Sunday afternoon. There the Americans were, in front of an overflow crowd estimated at 1,700 at Newport Harbor High. Their opponent was a familiar one, Hungary, a rematch of the 2008 Olympic gold-medal game won by the Hungarians.

The United States left no doubt about the outcome in this showcase. Team captain Tony Azevedo scored six goals as Team USA used a strong start to beat Hungary, 12-9.

Team USA, which features former Corona del Mar High and Cal standout John Mann as well as UC Irvine alumni Ryan Bailey, Jeff Powers and Tim Hutten, came out strong in the six-on-five. A day after converting just two of 13 chances in an 8-7 loss against Croatia, the Americans went 10 for 16 on extra against Hungary.

Three of the extra-man strikes came in the first quarter, which ended with the Americans up 5-2. Powers scored the first goal of the game on a rebound, and Hutten later scored a six-on-five goal for a 3-1 lead. Powers also scored the last goal of the quarter, skipping in a powerful shot with 33 seconds left after he was fouled outside of five meters.

Bailey, Powers and Hutten were all part of the U.S. team that took silver in Beijing. This year's Olympic team will be named June 5, but the Americans currently have 11 of the 13 players from the silver-medal team of 2008 on their roster.

The United States is looking for its first Olympic gold medal. Hungary has won the last three. Sunday's win was the first for the United States over Hungary since a FINA World League match in July, 2002.

"It's a total team sport and we're very confident as a team, I think," said Powers, who scored twice Sunday. "We're pretty confident we can win this gold medal. We have a lot of returners, we're strong. That's why a lot of us returned, because these guys [Hungary] beat us in the gold-medal game. We kind of have that bitter taste in our mouth. We won a silver, but we kind of lost the gold."

Team USA would not lose the lead in this match. They extended it to 7-2 by halftime, as Peter Varellas scored twice more on six-on-five in the second quarter.

Holding Hungary to two goals in the first half was impressive. For the game, the Hungarians went just four for 11 on the power play, much of it due to the strong goaltending of U.S. keeper Merrill Moses (12 saves).

In each half, Moses kept raising his arms above his head during timeouts, encouraging the crowd's growing chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!"

"He was great all day," Bailey, a three-time Olympian, said of Moses. "I think he relishes the challenge of playing against the Hungarian shooters. They're world-famous as being the best. It was a big challenge for him, and he rose to the occasion."

So did the rest of the Americans, especially as Hungary tried to rally in the fourth quarter. Tamás Varga scored his second goal from the left, then captain Péter Biros found the back of the cage from seven meters with 6:23 left. The latter goal cut the Americans' lead to 10-7.

But, after Bailey fouled out Dániel Varga inside, there was Azevedo scoring again on the power play with 5:36 left to push the lead back to four goals. In all, three Hungarian players fouled out in the second half.

"We watched some video of our six-on-five [against Croatia], and it wasn't pretty," Bailey said. "The coaches focused on it in our meeting, and we were able to be a little bit more aggressive and look like shooters out there. That helped us set each other up and make shots."

Hungary would not get closer until the final minute, when Tamás Kásás scored to cut the lead to 12-9. But Team USA was able to run the clock out, to the delight of the crowd.

Mann has been battling for a spot on his first Olympic team. Lately he has been receiving extended run, as fellow two-meter man J.W. Krumpholz suffered a concussion during the FINA World League prelims two weeks ago at Foothill High. Team USA head coach Terry Schroeder said Mann did a good job inside when he was subbed in for Bailey.

"I think John's improved tremendously since 2008," Schroeder said. "He's taking a beating in there and he's staying focused. It's very difficult at the end of the game being in there, and the referees are going to call it very tight. He got a few offensive fouls, but he came back hard and played defense. That's the main thing we want him to do. You can't come back slow, and he did a really nice job of coming back and playing defense."

Sunday's match, which aired live on NBC Sports Network, will replay on Universal Sports on Monday at noon. Also Monday, Hungary plays Croatia at 5 p.m. in the final game of the Newport Harbor pre-Olympic showcase.

The United States and Hungary will meet again at least once at the Olympics, since they are both in Group B. For now, Team USA will continue training for London.

The Americans continue with two more exhibition games, on Thursday at UCLA against Hungary and on Friday at Pasadena's Rose Bowl Aquatics Center against Croatia.

But on this day against Hungary, good vibes seemed to propel Team USA.

"It's Memorial Day weekend," Mann said. "It's all about America right now. The greatest thing was just the energy in the crowd and the stands. Everybody came and was patriotic, and that's what we're all doing this for. We're one big team, America, so it's just great to have everybody here.

"And also, it's good to be home."


Twitter: @mjszabo

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