The juggernaut U.S. women’s water polo team won Group A with an unblemished 5-0 record, and has moved to within one win of earning its spot at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Team USA must advance to the semifinal round of the Olympic Qualification Tournament in Gouda, Netherlands, in order to secure a trip to Rio and the opportunity to defend its 2012 Olympic championship. The U.S. women will face France, the fourth-place team from Group B, in Saturday’s quarterfinal round.
The world’s No. 1 team lived up to its ranking, rolling through a challenging group that included 2008 Olympic champion Spain, continental rival Canada and a Greek side that showed its mettle by defeating the Spaniards in its opening game. Employing a strategy to break on top early, the Americans never trailed in their five matches and were tied only once, when Spain drew even at 2-2 in the first quarter of their contest. The U.S. side closed out Group A with a staggering 80-22 goal differential, the most of any team in the tournament. By comparison, Italy, the winner of Group B, had a goal differential of 56-18.
The Americans spread the scoring around the roster, with three players reaching double digits in five games and 11 players scoring at least two goals. Kiley Neushul and Makenzie Fischer, both seeking their first trip to the Olympic Games, scored 12 goals apiece while Maggie Steffens, Most Valuable Player of the London 2012 Olympic Games, found the net 11 times. The U.S. power play offense recorded 20 goals in 33 opportunities for a .606 efficiency while holding opponents to only 10 goals in 33 chances, a .303 percentage.
The quarterfinal match can be viewed live on the NBC Live Extra app at 7 a.m. ET and will be televised on NBC Sports Network beginning at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Here’s how each of the U.S. matches in group play went down:
Game 1 – USA 18, Japan 1
Team USA took control of this match early as two-time Olympic medalist Kami Craig scored the first of her three goals a mere 17 seconds into the match. Seven Americans had a multi-goal game, led by Neushul’s four tallies. The U.S. scored on both of its penalty shots and found the goal on four of six power plays. Defensively, the U.S. permitted only nine shots. In two meetings between the two teams in the span of a month, the United States has yielded only three goals to the Japanese side, posting a 19-2 final in the Intercontinental Tournament earlier in the year.
Game 2 – USA 14, Canada 7
The U.S. used back-to-back opening goals by Fischer to surge to a 3-0 advantage in the first quarter, only to allow the Canadians to draw back to within one, 3-2. Cranking up their game, the Americans dug in on defense and goals by Kaleigh Gilchrist and Neushul made the margin 5-2 at the first intermission. Neushul added another as the second quarter opened, and the Americans never looked back, taking a 7-3 lead into halftime and building to 9-3 at the end of three. The U.S was more efficient on power plays, converting four of seven chances against Canada’s three out of eight opportunities.
Game 3 – USA 8, Spain 6
The much-anticipated rematch between the last two Olympic champions lived up to its billing. In a physical match with the top spot in the group table on the line, Fischer had the hot hand for the U.S., scoring half of the team’s eight goals. The Americans followed the script that has worked for them in Gouda, jumping out to an early lead on Rachel Fattal’s goal in the first minute. After Fischer’s first goal, Spain pulled even for a 2-2 score at the end of the first quarter. The U.S. led 6-3 at halftime, but Spain found the net twice to pull to within one, 6-5, before Fischer put the game out of reach with back-to-back goals for an 8-5 lead. The Americans scored on three of seven power plays, and their short-handed defense allowed only two goals in 10 tries to the Spaniards. Ashleigh Johnson was stout in goal, making 12 saves.
Game 4 – USA 15, Greece 7
Once again, the U.S. side jumped to an early lead and cruised to the victory, locking down the top spot in the group and ensuring advancement to the quarterfinals, where a win will secure a spot in Rio. Holding a 10-4 lead at halftime, the Americans spent the second half working their offense, patiently working the ball and finding the gaps in the Greek defense.
Game 5 – USA 25, South Africa 1
Team USA completed its roll through pool play with a 25-1 victory over South Africa, the highest offensive output of the tournament. Steffens, the 2012 FINA Player of the Year, single-handedly put the South Africans away in the first 2:20 of the match with three of her four goals. Leading 7-0 after the first quarter, the U.S. did not lift its foot off the gas, pushing the halftime advantage to 13-0. South Africa spoiled the shutout, slipping one past the U.S. defense in the fourth quarter to make the score 22-1. Steffens, K.K. Clark and Maddie Musselman accounted for 12 goals, while Gilchrist had three and Fischer, Craig and Aria Fischer each contributed a pair.