The days of the U.S. Women's National Team dominating the water polo world evidently are over, at least for now, following the Americans' sixth-place finish at the FINA World Championships on Friday in Shanghai, China.
Team USA ended the championships on a two-game losing streak, capped by a 10-5 loss to Australia in the fifth-place match. The loss officially moves the U.S. ranking in the world from first to sixth, a lofty perch the Americans held for the past two years. The sixth-place finish is the team's lowest finish since an eighth-place mark at the 1998 World Championships in Perth, Australia.
"I think we have to take a hard look at how we performed in this tournament," said USA head coach Adam Krikorian. "Obviously, (we) have to make some improvements and corrections. I think the hard reality right now is that we are the sixth-best team in the world.
"We certainly have a lot of work ahead of us to get back to where we want to be. At the same time, our focus all year has been to perform at Pan Ams; that has been our No. 1 goal and we haven't lost that opportunity. That opportunity is not too far away (in October) and we need to make these improvements in a short period of time in order to get ready for the biggest tournament of the year."
In Friday's match, the Aussies used six straight goals spanning the second and third quarters to turn a one-goal deficit into a five-goal advantage. Stanford grad Brenda Villa and current Cardinal Annika Dries led the USA offense with two goals each.
"Nothing is ever going to be constant; change is always going to be what will happen," said Dries. "For our team, our ability to deal with change -- whether it is momentum during a game (etc), -- that is the type of thing we'll take away from this tournament. Looking forward, we are really excited for the Pan American Games. When you are going into a type of tournament like the Pan American Games to qualify for the ultimate -- the Olympic Games -- what better than to face adversity and the challenges we faced in this tournament."
The USA started off quickly against Australia, looking to score in the opening minute when Kami Craig drew a five-meter penalty. However, Kelly Rulon's penaly shot was off the mark. Team USA broke through with 4:13 to go in the period as Villa bounced home a shot in transition for a 1-0 lead. Australia answered with a power play goal shortly thereafter and the match was tied at 1-1. The United States came back with a counter attack goal when Dries was able to go with a cross-cage skip to beat the keeper for a 2-1 lead.
That was the score to open the second quarter when Australia started to take over and grabbed a 5-2 halftime lead. It was 7-2 in the third until Dries scored. Villa followed with a shot in transition at the 4:26 mark to close the gap to 7-4. Back-to-back goals by the Aussies, however, buried the Americans' hopes.
"I never felt like we were arrogant going into this," Krikorian said. "I think we've always had a tremendous amount of respect for everyone and understand that it is extremely competitive now. I think there is always something inside that makes you work a little bit harder and pour a little bit more into it, and now we have this to help us motivate moving forward."