The Achilles' heel of the U.S. men's water polo team has been its play in the final quarter of important international games.
The U.S. didn't have that problem Friday night against Croatia in the opening game of the inaugural FINA World Water Polo League, taking a four-goal lead early in the fourth quarter and winning, 15-13, at the Los Alamitos Armed Forces Center.
Tony Azevedo scored seven goals for the Americans, who earned three points with the victory and some additional confidence heading into a rematch with the Croatians on Sunday at the U.S. training headquarters in Los Alamitos.
"I feel like we were definitely tested," said Azevedo, 20, who was the youngest member of the 2000 Olympic team that finished sixth in Sydney. "We made a lot of mistakes out there in the fourth quarter, but we still won by two goals. That shows a lot of character."
Azevedo said the U.S. isn't so concerned about winning as gaining international experience and playing well in the closing minutes. The United States hasn't won an Olympic medal since 1988, but U.S. Coach Ratko Rudic, who was hired after the 2000 Games, believes playing more games against high-caliber competition will help end the drought.
In addition to Sunday's game against Croatia, the U.S. will host Russia twice next week and Hungary for two games later next month. The U.S. will then play the same three teams in their countries.
The top two teams from the four-team U.S. bracket, along with two teams from a second bracket, will advance to the Super Final in Patras, Greece, in August.