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U.S. Is Its Own Worst Enemy in Quarterfinal Loss to Russia


SYDNEY, Australia — They had been improving gradually, getting contributions from more and more players, enough good signs for driver Wolf Wigo to anticipate the U.S. men's water polo team could win its quarterfinal match against Russia today .

"I was real optimistic, and I think the team was looking forward to it," he said. "But maybe four or five guys came out to play. Four or five went through the motions. A couple of people didn't play well at all and at this level, that's not going to get you to the medal round.

"I'm extremely disappointed."

What had been coming together so well for the U.S. fell apart in an 11-10 loss to Russia at the Ryde Aquatic Center. Wigo, with three goals and two assists, and 18-year-old driver Tony Azevedo of Long Beach, who had three goals and an assist, were among the few U.S. players who earned the right to be proud of their efforts today; goalkeeper Dan Hackett and most of the defense didn't do their part to keep the U.S. in contention for a medal, leaving the U.S. to scramble for fifth-place classification games Saturday and Sunday.

Russia, which was led by Alexander Erychov with four goals, will advance to the semifinals against the winner of the Spain-Croatia match, which was played late today.

"I think if everyone had been playing well, the outcome would have been different," said driver Chris Oeding, who scored two goals. "You get a game of this caliber and importance and everybody is going to react differently. You hope the team is going to overcome obstacles, and that wasn't the case."

Said Coach John Vargas: "I'm not real pleased with the whole team's performance but we had some individuals that played very well."

The U.S., which was 2-3 in preliminary-round play and finished fourth in Group B, knew it faced a formidable opponent in Group A-winner Russia. But after a slow start today, the U.S. stayed within striking distance--only to fall frustratingly short because of its own faults and because of unfavorable calls from the referees.

Oeding sent Azevedo in toward the Russian goal on a three-on-two in the waning seconds of the game but Azevedo was nearly strangled and no foul was called on Russia. The U.S. protested but to no avail.

"Tony got the ball and it seemed like he had position," Oeding said. "The defender made a clean steal."

Oeding, however, didn't say that convincingly. "I know there wasn't a penalty called, so I deduced that," he said, wryly.

Vargas said he thought a penalty should have been called against Russia, but he knew that's not where the game was truly lost. "We had control of the game," he said, "but we didn't keep up the defense."

The U.S. overcame an early 3-0 Russia lead--the last of which came on a 60-foot shot as the first quarter expired--and pulled even in the second quarter. In a game of scoring surges, the U.S. led only once, and then only briefly. Wigo pounced on the rebound of a shot by Chris Humbert to bring the U.S. even at 6-6 with 5:15 left in the third quarter, and Wigo took a pass from Humbert and beat goalkeeper Nikolai Maximov one-on-one with 4:50 left for a 7-6 U.S. lead. But that lasted only 31 seconds, until Sergei Garbouzov--whose extensive shoulder tattoos distinguish him in the water--scored on a bouncer from long range.

Russia took the lead for good on an extra-man goal, a bouncing shot by Dmitri Stratan between Hackett and U.S. defender Sean Kern. The U.S. kept it close, but Russia had an answer for each goal it scored.

The U.S. had one more push, scoring on a long shot by Azevedo with 1:26 to play, but Russia's swarming defense ended the U.S. team's medal hopes.

"I'd like to get fifth," said Wigo, "but right now, I need a couple of hours to get over this game because it's an extreme disappointment. I didn't want to be in this position at all."

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