USA water polo upsets Croatia in local exhibition

USA's Jeff Powers gets a shot past two Croatian defenders in the second half. Photo by Seth and Sam Rubinroit

The ninth-ranked United States Olympic men’s water polo team stunned the No. 1 team in the world, Croatia, with a convincing 8-5 victory at Oaks Christian High School in Thousand Oaks on Saturday night.

“Obviously, this is big for our guys,” said USA head coach Terry Schroeder. “This is the reason we train against the best teams in the world. To hold those guys to five goals is amazing.”

Team USA had to overcome a 3-1 halftime deficit to defeat Croatia. In the second half, goaltender Brandon Brooks held Croatia to two goals, and the offense came alive. Tony Azevedo led Team USA with three goals, and Ryan Bailey added two goals.

“We used to be successful against Croatia, but not in the last three years,” said Azevedo, the USA team captain. “So for us to come out and beat them not by one but by three goals is a huge confidence booster. We will be ready for the Olympics.”

The win was special because it avenged Thursday’s 6-2 loss to Croatia at the Bergeson Aquatic Center in Newport Beach. It also marked the first time Team USA defeated Croatia under its current head coach Ratko Rudic, who coached Team USA in the 2004 Olympic Games.

A large, patriotic crowd toting U.S. flags flocked to Oaks Christian High School to experience this unique opportunity to watch American athletes prepare locally for the Olympics. Malibu resident Kelly Silverberg, who helped plan and organize the event, said the bleachers that Team USA rented for the game easily sold-out. People began lining up three hours before the game to become a part of the standing-room only section of the pool deck. Quickly, the standing-room section also sold-out, and people were forced to watch the match from a grass hill across from the pool. Overall, there were more than 1,000 spectators for the exhilarating upset.

“This was one of the best crowds I have ever witnessed,” Brooks said. “They are rabid fans, and it made a big difference for us to have that kind of support.”

With the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games just months away, Team USA hopes this thrilling upset victory will give the players momentum.

“The thing we need to do now is to use this game as a stepping stone and move forward from it,” said Jeff Powers, who scored a goal during Team USA’s second-half comeback. “This gives the team confidence after we played badly on Thursday, and seeing we can beat Croatia gives us a spark.”

Team USA plays at 6 p.m. on Tuesday against Australia at Cal Lutheran University. The American squad leaves for Italy on June 13.