The U.S. men’s water polo team finished second in the 2008 Olympic Games but eighth in 2012. In an effort to remain among the world’s elite in the hypercompetitive sport, USA Water Polo announced in November it would start a new league showcasing the best players in the nation.
The National League will consist of seven teams — three USA squads and four club teams — and compete one weekend per month in its four-month schedule. The first matches of the league get under way this Saturday and Sunday at Segerstrom High School in Santa Ana, California.
“The impetus behind this is that during the months of January and May there really isn’t any competition for our highest level male athletes in our development pipeline, in our Olympic selection process, to continue to play and train,” said John Abdou, who is the USA Water Polo High Performance Director. “While the rest of the world during that same time is playing professionally in Europe or Australia, we don’t have the ability to match the level of competition that’s happening with their club system.”
In the past, some U.S. players journeyed overseas to compete. Now, those athletes can stay in their home country and play in highly competitive matches.
“Immediately it gives us high-level games and high-level competition domestically that will help prepare all the athletes,” Abdou said. “This is something that is sorely needed for our development.”
The National League is comprised of the top college and high school water polo players in the country. Each team has between 14 and 16 players. The three USA teams — Red, White and Blue — are made up of mostly younger, less experienced players. The four club teams — Alumni Water Polo Club, New York Athletic Club, The Olympic Club and International Water Polo Club — mostly feature players who are veterans in the sport.
“The reason for having the three USA teams is to be compliant with NCAA rules,” Abdou said. “These are guys that have been specifically identified as trying out for the national team."
The league will serve as a developmental avenue for the U.S. national team.
“I think it’s really going to help us out,” said Bret Bonanni, who is a junior at Stanford and plays on the USA White team. “We’re playing against some of the top clubs in the U.S. It always helps to play against guys that are older, because they have a lot of knowledge and more experience. It’s helpful to watch them play and play against them and see how they kind of view the game. It might be on a different level than some of the guys in the league that are in college or even in high school.”
The National League will wrap up in April, and once it’s finished for the year, two U.S. national teams will be selected from all the athletes playing in the league. Those national teams will then compete in the annual Fisher Cup on May 16-17 in San Diego. A final national team will be chosen in the summer and will take part in the Pan American Games July 10-26 in Toronto. That event serves as the Olympic qualifier for water polo for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
This isn’t the first water polo league in the United States. The Premier League, which was made up of professional athletes, started in the early 2000s, but it folded in 2008.
The players who will compete in the National League are looking forward to competing against the best water polo players in the country.
“I’m pretty excited,” Bonanni said. “There are a lot of guys in the league that I haven’t played with since I was younger, so that’s always nice to play with your old friends. It’s cool to have a league like this.”
Bonanni’s senior national team teammate Alex Bowen is also ready to compete.
“I’m excited with the way they have (the league) going,” said Bowen, who attends Stanford but is out of NCAA eligibility and plays on the New York Athletic Club team. “I was a little bit too young the last time they did something like this with the Premier League. But I’m excited to be a part of it.”
Each team will have regular-season matches on each of the first three weekends, alternating locations in southern and northern California, with the final weekend serving as the championship round at Miramonte High School in Orinda, California.
Admission will be free for the general public the first few weekends of competition. However, on championship weekend tickets will most likely have to be purchased, noted Abdou. There will also be a livestream of some of the matches starting this Sunday at GoLivePolo.com. Matches get under way at 9 a.m. Pacific time on Saturday.
“We hope that young players come out and watch,” Abdou said. “We highly encourage all water polo fans and those interested in learning more about the sport to come and watch, because this is the highest level of domestic play we have on our men’s side.”
USA Water Polo is planning to run the National League through 2016. After the two seasons are up, Abdou isn’t sure yet what the future will hold.
“How the 2016 league will look and beyond is a little open ended, frankly,” Abdou said. “I’d like to continue to design the league to help our team as much as possible for 2015.”
Bonanni would like to see the league run every year as a building block for water polo in the United States.
“I see (the league) only getting better from this year,” Bonanni said. “I think it’s something that we should really focus on and have it be an importance to all the American players and coaches. It can’t hurt us, so why not just make it the best it can be and just keep developing it for more years to come.”
Greg Bates is a freelance writer based in Green Bay, Wisconsin, who has covered Green Bay Packers games for a number of media outlets for the past eight seasons. He has been a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc., since 2012.