The U.S. men's water polo team started the London Games with gold-medal aspirations. They seemed well on their way when they opened Group B play with three wins.
The 2012 team was looking to build from their silver-medal performance in Beijing. They lost to Hungary in the gold-medal match 14-10, but believed they could build a championship team.
Part of their preparation for London was a pair of warm-up matches against Hungary. The U.S. won both contests and looked like a superior team in the process.
They put their 3-0-0 record up against Serbia, who was 2-1-0 after a tie with Montenegro.
An 11-6 loss pointed to signs of problems.
Team USA looked uninspired in their effort against Hungary, dropping the game by the same margin as their first loss.
If being dominated in two straight losses doesn't cast doubt on their ability to advance from their opening match in the medal rounds, their opponent should.
The loss to Hungary moved them from the second seed to fourth. If not for a change in the format of the medal rounds, the U.S. would no longer have a shot at a medal (in 2008, only the top three teams from each group advanced).
But the 2012 tournament advances four teams from each group.
The U.S. will face the top seed from Group A, undefeated Croatia.
"We've played some very good quarters and we've played some very bad quarters," U.S. coach Terry Schroeder said to the L.A. Times.
"You can't win a medal at the Olympic Games playing that way."
"I have to take a lot of the blame. I put a lot of this on my shoulder, where we're at. For whatever reason, they're not playing like we should be. I've got to go back and look in the mirror first and say, 'What are we doing? What can I do better?'"
U.S. attacker Peter Varellas tried to sound optimistic. "It's concerning. Confidence is not at a real high right now, but we have 48 hours to get that back."
The team isn't playing with fire or purpose, making confidence one of several items that need to be addressed.
Confidence didn't seem to be an issue prior to the game. Team captain Tony Azevedo shared his thoughts on the U.S. prevailing on Twitter.
Azevedo had a different tone after the match when he was quoted in an Associated Press report (h/t Fox Sports). But he believes the issues will be fixed for the medal round.
Look, it's defense, that's it. Six goals is not enough, but that's fine. But when on defense you can't make a stop, you can't expect to win. Defense is the part of the game that's really the easiest to change. It's heart and it's passion, and right now we're not playing with it, and I honestly can't tell you why.
A win would have led to the second seed and an opening match with Spain. The winner would advance to the semifinals and be guaranteed a medal game.
Beating Croatia is a more daunting task.
If gold was the team's goal, and they still believe they can achieve it, playing Croatia in the quarterfinals isn't an issue. The U.S. would have likely faced them in the semifinals had they beat Hungary in group play.
But a loss in the semifinals still means playing for bronze. If the Americans can't right their ship, and fast, they'll be out of the medal hunt in London.
That would be a disappointing finish for a team that came in with a realistic expectation of winning a gold medal.
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