U.S., Italy battle to 9-9 tie at Dos Pueblos

Italy vs. USA water polo

USA's Tony Azevedo holds the ball with Italy's Maurizio Felugo defending in an international exhibition men's water polo match. (Presidio Sports Photos)

The United States men’s national water polo team rallied from a three-goal deficit in the fourth period but reigning world champion Italy scored on a power play with four seconds remaining, and the two London Olympics qualifiers finished their exhibition match in a 9-9 draw on Thursday night at the Elings Aquatic Center at Dos Pueblos High.

Down 8-5, the Americans scored three straight goals to tie the score and took a 9-8 lead on a goal by former UCSB star Brian Alexander with 35 seconds to go.

“We didn’t play as sharply on our 6 on 5, but when the game was on the line at the end we scored some big ones, and that’s good to see when the pressure is on, scoring those power plays when you have to,” said U.S. coach Terry Schroeder, who was back in his hometown.

Team Italy won the World Championships last year.

Italy came right back and drew a 6-on-5 opportunity with 20 seconds remaining. Stefano Luongo scored the equalizer.

Alexander said Italy’s speed of play makes it tough to defend.

“They move the ball around quick,” he said. “They work well together and they have a lot of really talented shooters. It’s a fast-paced game. It’s something we’re trying to work on. Swimming-wise we’re just as fast, but their ball movement is really good. They move the ball around quickly. It makes it tough.”

Schroeder said playing a team like Italy is good preparation for his team.

“It’s just really good training,” he said. “We’ve been training really hard against ourselves for two months now, so it’s nice to able to beat on somebody else a little bit. It’s real positive.”

This was the second meeting in a week for the two Olympic qualifiers. The U.S. won a 9-8 decision at the Four Nations Tournament last Friday in Thousand Oaks.

Thursday’s game was tied at 4-4 early in the second period before the Italians got back-to-back goals from Valentino Gallo and Valerio Rizzo to take a 6-4 halftime lead.

The U.S. offense didn’t score in the third period but the defense stayed strong and allowed only one goal.

“We just went flat, and that happens once in a while,” Schroeder said of the third period. “We did a nice job of holding them to one goal, so we never really let the game get out of control. That’s one of the quarters where things aren’t working well offensively, but you got to keep playing defense, and the guys kept working hard on defense. Even though we had a couple of man-down situations, we did a nice job of stopping them and holding them to one goal. It was actually very positive. We put ourselves in position to be able come back.”

The U.S. got a goal from Ryan Bailey off a crossing pass from Jesse Smith to snap the drought. Italy, however, would counter on a long pass from goalkeeper Stefano Tempesti to Christian Presciutti, who beat U.S. goalkeeper Andy Stevens for an 8-5 advantage.

The U.S. stepped up its attack and responded with three straight goals. Adam Wright beat Tempesti with 3:34 left and followed with a brilliant diagonal pass to Tony Azevedo for a goal, making it an 8-7 game at 2:40.

After Stevens made a big save on a shot by Presciutti, Powers evened the score at 8-8 on an outside shot with 1:17 left.

“Andy came in there in a situation where he was down a couple of goals and played well in the second half,” said Schroder of his goalkeeper.

The U.S. got the ball back after an Italian misfire and it drew an ejection against Italy’s Niccolo Figari with 52 seconds remaining. As the Americans worked the ball around, Azevedo fed Alexander on the left wing and the former Gaucho All-American rifled a shot past Tempesti for the go-ahead goal.

“Brian did a nice job,” Schroeder said. “He’s a finisher. He’s not afraid to fail, which is real positive thing in all players. You want them to take that shot when it’s their shot.”

Italy still had enough time to score equalizer before the final horn.

Bailey led all scorers with three goals, while Powers and Azevedo tallied two each for the U.S. Valentino Gallo scored two goals to lead Italy.