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SYDNEY 2000 / SUMMER OLYMPIC GAMES | WATER POLO

U.S. Gets Lesson From Yugoslavia

September 24, 2000|HELENE ELLIOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SYDNEY, Australia — When he marched in the opening ceremony, 18-year-old U.S. water polo driver Tony Azevedo couldn't help but be awed.

"It was like, 'Oh, my God, I'm here. I'm talking to Marion Jones and Lindsay Davenport is sitting next to me,' " said Azevedo, a graduate of Long Beach Wilson High and one of the youngest players in the water polo tournament.

"It was kind of a shock. But we had 11 days to sort things out. We're not here to meet all these people--we're here to rock and roll."

So far, it has been more rock than roll for the U.S. men.

Yugoslavia, a longtime and frequent training partner of the U.S. team, showed its old friends no mercy today. Driver Aleksandr Sapic scored four goals, the first with an extra man 1:36 into the game, and driver Danilo Ikodinovic added two as Yugoslavia overpowered the U.S., 8-5, at the Ryde Aquatic Center and dropped the U.S. to 0-2 in Group B preliminary-round play.

Azevedo, considered one of the best young players in the world, cut his team's deficit to 4-3 with an extra-man goal with 4:28 to play in the second period, but Sapic rebuilt a two-goal lead for Yugoslavia with a hard shot inside the left post 2.9 seconds before the end of the second quarter.

Gavin Arroyo's extra-man goal with 5:46 left in the third quarter kept the U.S. close, but Yugoslavia had plenty in reserve. A hard, bouncing goal by Ikodinovic with three minutes to play in the third quarter gave Yugoslavia a 6-4 lead, and a bouncer past U.S. goalkeeper Dan Hackett and inside the far post by Sapic, with the extra man, with 8.7 seconds before the buzzer put Yugoslavia (2-0) too far ahead for the U.S. to overtake.

U.S. Coach John Vargas saw some improvement from his team's tournament-opening 10-7 loss to Croatia, and he chose to build on that positive note instead of reflecting on his team's shortcomings against Yugoslavia.

Against Croatia, the U.S. defense was remarkably porous in the early going and allowed Croatia to take a big lead early; Wolf Wigo had three goals in that game and three-time Olympian Chris Humbert scored the last two, making the final score somewhat less painful. The U.S. left fewer opponents open for uncontested shots today, but Yugoslavia prevailed nonetheless.

"I thought we played a lot better today, but we've got to clean up our six-on-five situations," Vargas said, referring to the U.S. team's 3-for-9 performance on power plays. "That's not going to get it done.

"If we play [Monday] with the fight and go-for-it that we showed today, we're in this thing. People say we started off with tough teams, in Yugoslavia and Croatia, and that we're in a tough group. But I think it's good for us. It makes us tournament-tough. This is a tough tournament, and this is going to help us when we get to crossover play."

There can be a fine line between tournament-toughened and bruised. But Azevedo, for one, isn't daunted.

"The U.S., we always play better toward the end of tournaments," he said. "We started slow against Croatia, and today we played so much better. We can only go up."

Slow starts are nothing new for the U.S. men in the Olympics.

They also lost their opener at Atlanta in 1996, a 10-7 loss to Italy, but won four straight before losing to Spain. They finished seventh.

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