Men’s Water Polo Group Play at FINA Worlds Ends; USA Outside Looking In

Hungary’s Men’s National Team. Photo Courtesy: DeepBlueMedia

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The main water polo party at FINA Worlds begins this weekend in Budapest, and the U.S. men’s team is not invited.

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Group play for the men’s water polo bracket at the 2017 FINA World Championships ended Friday. Attention now turns to play-in matches Sunday to determine one half the draw for the quarterfinals. The other half was decided in matches today; by winning their groups, four teams punched their tickets directly to the next level of competition.

Tournament favorite Serbia easily swept it’s three matches—concluding with an 11-6 win over Greece on Friday—to take top honors in Group D. A 13-7 win over France enabled Hungary to also complete its run to the top of Group C undefeated. After an early stumble—a tie with Canada on Monday—Montenegro regrouped to beat Kazakhstan 13-5 and top Group A with five points. Croatia did the expected in Group B, closing out Japan 16-6 and finishing with six points to join the other group winners with byes into the quarterfinals on Tuesday.

In a championship that has almost predictably followed expectations, there’s been only one major surprise: the failure of Team USA to qualify for a play-in match. The Americans will be in action on Sunday, but not as not as one of eight teams fighting for four qualifying spots; instead they will play against South Africa in a classification match.

The highest they can finish is 13th; the worst previous performance at FINA Worlds by an American squad was 11th place in 2005.

Surprisingly, the team that aced them out in Group B was not Russia. Rather it was Japan, which stunned the U.S. on Wednesday, winning 15-7 and essentially sealing its place as the third team in the group. A miracle Friday against Russia—winning by eight or more goals—would allow the Americans to move forward.

Team USA gave glimmers of hope to its beleaguered fans, opening up an 8-1 lead in the first half. The U.S. even led 13-7 early in the fourth before the Russians rallied. A 14-11 win, on the strength of four goals apiece by Alex Bowen and Luca Cupido, was simply not enough to get the Americans out of the goal differential hole they had previously dug for themselves.

For the teams that have something more to play for on Sunday, the headline match is Spain, behind Serbia and Greece in Group D, against Russia, second in Group B. In other play-in matches, Brazil, which took second in Group A on the strength of a 6-6 tie with Canada, will face Australia, third in Group B. Kazakhstan, with a win over the Canadians on Wednesday, will face Italy, Group B’s second place team. In the fourth match Japan, which has only advanced once in FINA Worlds (2011), will play Greece, the second-place team in Group C.

The winners of Sunday’s matches will face four rested teams on Tuesday; either Brazil or Australia will earn the dubious honor of a match against Serbia. Hungary will draw the winner of the Spain vs. Russia winner; Croatia will face the Italy vs. Kazakhstan winner, and whomever wins the Greece vs. Japan match will play Montenegro.

With the riotous crowds and fantastic atmosphere at the Alfred Hajos Pool, the days ahead promise wonderful polo. Too bad the Americans will not be fully able to enjoy them.

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