2012 Olympics: 5 Steps to Winning Gold for the USA Women's Water Polo Team
Even though the Americans are the only country to claim a medal in women’s water polo at all three Olympics in which it has been a sport, and they won gold in nearly every other world event, the Olympic gold remains elusive. In 2000, it was a heartbreaking 4-3 loss to the hands of the host country Australia.
The Americans claimed bronze at the 2004 games before losing a 9-8 at the parity filled 2008 Beijing Olympic games. In that final, the Americans allowed the Netherlands' Danielle de Brujin to score seven goals en route to the final. For you non-water polo fans, that’s like scoring 50 points in an NBA Finals Game. So how does the USA women’s water polo team get back to the finals and come out on top? I give you five easy steps to winning gold.
5. Integrate the Youngsters
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You can play as much international water polo as you want, but nothing is going to replicate playing in the Olympic games. Six women will be participating in their first ever games and three of those women have yet to finish their collegiate careers. In fact, Maggie Steffens has not even started her college career after graduating from high school in 2011. These women are no strangers to the women’s senior national team, but the experienced Olympic veterans Heather Petri and Brenda Villa must help calm the nerves of the younger players if the Americans want to sail smoothly through a potentially jitter-filled first round.
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Water polo is a brutal sport and teams must be in top tier shape in order to compete effectively at both sides of the pool. This year’s American team is deep off the bench. By ramping up conditioning in preparation for the Olympics, the Americans should be able to take advantage of other teams' lack of depth. Being in excellent shape will allow the United States to push their counter attacks and apply high-pressure defense to wear down their opponents over 32 minutes of play. If the Americans can use all 11 players off the bench, they should be able to outwork opponents over the course of the tournament.
3. Take Care of Business in Pool Play
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The United States has been placed in Group A, which is the easier of the two groups. The Americans need to sweep Hungary, Spain, and China in their first three games to secure a No. 1 seed for the quarterfinals. China may be the Americans’ most formidable challenger, placing fourth at 2012 World Super League Finals. Hungary and Spain failed to qualify for the Super League Finals in the European Preliminaries.
If the Americans win their group, it will likely set them up for a quarterfinal matchup with host Great Britain, who has extremely limited experience in international water polo and will likely finish last in Group B. A lighter quarterfinal opponent would provide the Americans with a much-needed rest in the middle of a grueling tournament.
2. Hot Goalkeeping
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We have seen it in nearly every sport that has a goalie. Goalkeepers can make or break your run to gold. Two different Team USA goalies were perfect examples during the past two Olympics. The United States men’s hockey team rode Ryan Miller’s hot play to a silver medal finish in 2010 in Vancouver. The United States men’s water polo goalkeeper Merrill Moses was a big part in getting the American’s back on the medal stand for the first time since 1988. Moses played some of his best water polo during the Beijing games.
For the US women, a big part of their success comes down to the play of Betsey Armstrong. Armstrong is the kind of veteran you want between the posts. Armstrong was the starting Goalkeeper for the Americans in the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, has been named FINA Aquatics World Magazine Female Water Polo Player of the Year, and recently turned away 15 shots in the World Super League Final against Australia. If the Americans can get hot goalkeeping from Armstrong, it will allow them to play more aggressively on the defense and take some chances that could lead to potential counter attacks.
1. Outstanding Six-on-Five Play
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Most water polo coaches will tell you games are decided on how teams convert their six-on-five opportunities. Similar to hockey, the teams that are best at taking advantage of power play opportunities tend to find themselves playing late in the playoffs. At such a high level of play, taking advantage of the few six-on-five opportunities a team has is crucial for success. International goalies are tough to beat from the perimeter and six-on-five opportunities provide teams with the perfect chance to wear down the defense and goalkeeper to score.
USA saw this first-hand in Beijing, where they converted their first four man-advantage opportunities to come from behind and erase a four-goal deficit to the Netherlands. However, in the final 11 minutes, the United States missed two opportunities on the power play, ultimately costing them a one-goal loss in the gold medal round. One thing is for sure, head coach Adam Krikorian has spent ample practice time implementing his approach on the power play. It will be up to the women in the pool to convert and bring home the gold.