By Karen Price | June 19, 2017, 2:38 p.m. (ET)
Alex Bowen shoots for goal in a men's preliminary round match at the Olympic Games Rio 2016 at Maria Lenk Aquatics Centre on Aug. 8, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.

 

It’s a season of change for the U.S. men’s water polo team, as it moves forward without longtime leader Tony Azevedo and incorporates a crop of new members.

This week, the team will be tested at the World League Super Final in Ruza, Russia. Team USA opens play against Italy on Tuesday at 11 a.m. EST., followed by a match against Kazakhstan on Wednesday at 9 a.m. and Serbia on Thursday at 10:20 a.m. The playoffs then conclude with the championship game Sunday.

The U.S. men made it to the championship game and reached the podium for the first time in eight years when it earned a silver medal at last year’s World League Super Final in Huizhou, China. Serbia, which went on to win the Olympic gold medal, defeated Team USA for the championship.

Just six of the 13 players who were on that team will face Italy on Tuesday. 

“(Reaching the podium in back-to-back years) would be a big achievement for us,” said Alex Bowen, one of the six Olympians on the U.S. squad. “It’s a tough task, but we have a lot of talent and we can achieve that goal.”

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The United States qualified for the Super Final by placing in the top four at the FINA Intercontinental Tournament in April. With a team that had just two players from last year’s Olympic squad, Team USA advanced to the title game, where it lost to Australia 8-6, after leading 2-0 early on and pulling as close as 7-6 late in the action. 

Recently, Team USA hosted Croatia for a four-game tune-up series in California. The second of those games was the last of Azevedo’s distinguished career. Having already announced his retirement, the five-time Olympian widely considered the best U.S. men’s water polo player ever had one last hurrah at Stanford’s Avery Aquatic Center, where he played collegiately.

The U.S. team lost the first three games to Croatia, which won the silver medal at the Olympic Games Rio 2016, before winning the fourth and final game of the friendly series.

With his Hungarian club team in the playoffs, Bowen was unable to compete in the Intercontinental Tournament, but he has noticed that, particularly in the squad’s games against Croatia, the front-court defense is playing well.

“The last couple games of the series with Croatia were low scoring, and the goals we did give up came from mistakes that come with our youth,” he said. “It’s definitely a process, and we should get better every game. I look forward to the team developing over the season.”

Winning the last game before facing Olympic bronze medalist Italy gives the team a bit of momentum heading into the Super Final, Bowen said, but, more importantly, the friendly series gave the players more experience playing together. 

Joining Bowen as returning Olympians are 2017 Cutino Award winner McQuin Baron, Alex Obert, Thomas Dunstan, Ben Hallock and Alex Roelse.

Those who were not part of last year’s Super Final team are Drew Holland, Nic Carniglia, Matt DeTrane, Max Irving, Chancellor Ramirez, Marko Vavic and Johnny Hooper, who was the leading scorer at the Intercontinental Tournament with 20 goals. All but DeTrane, who was on the roster in 2013, will be making their Super Final debuts. 

The last time the U.S. squad saw Italy, the teams were in Rio. Having already been eliminated from advancing to the quarterfinals, Team USA defeated the Italians 10-7 to close out the Olympic competition.

“Italy is always a tough game, the players are always very experienced and they play a fast game,” Bowen said. “We have matched up well with them in the past, and it should be a good game. We need to limit our mistakes, that’s the key to the tournament for us, limit our turnovers and play the game in control.” 

Serbia will once again be the team to beat in this competition, with nine members of the Olympic gold-medal team, including MVP Filip Filipovic, set to compete. 

The United States has never won a men’s Super Final championship trophy. 

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.