The US men earned a mature and controlled victory over opening round opponent Montenegro on Sunday, punctuated by a world-class goal by Tony Azevedo with less than a minute left in the match. The team captain, who was targeted defensively all evening by the Montenegrins, is considered the finest American player in a generation. Monte Nitzkowski agrees, and few are better positioned to make that case than the coach of the Olympic sliver medalists in Los Angeles (featuring current head coach, Terry Schroeder). TWp spoke with him prior to the first Olympic matches.
With international water polo credentials spanning over 40 years, Nitzkowski has particular knowledge of American talent and preparing for the Olympic tournament.
“Tony is one of the best attackers ever,” and not just among American players.
“The game is so physical and static right now it limits great attackers. His career has been sensational, but it would’ve been even better if he played at the same time as [Spanish legend Manuel] Estiarte.”
Azevedo matches talents with his European superstar opponents, but that’s not the key to American victory in the Olympics. “In the past we won medals based on tactical discipline.” For this year’s team “experience will win out. There’s great leadership in the senior players. We’ve got guys from pro leagues back after a silver [in Beijing]. Experience is critical no matter how hot or young,” the opponent.
And the eight months the US team spent training together was valuable.
“As a coach I want them under my wing for the last year,” before the Olympics. Americans compete “against a lot of experience and fundamentally fantastic players. We had only one advantage: end to end speed, counterattack, driving. So we had to be mentally sky high. That’s why it’s good to have them back in California, bonded.”
The 2000 Sydney team suffered because several players didn’t return to the squad until the last few weeks before the Games. “If we had everyone [training together for] Sydney we would’ve had a heck of a shot at a medal.”
A shot the US has again in 2012, though the Olympic field is loaded. “There’s a certain parity among the top five teams. I haven’t seen anything that says any team is ten miles in front of the pack.” The US has “a definite shot at a medal. But they could be fifth,” just as easily.
Any concerns? “Health and depth,” as always. “Depth is very important if anyone gets dinged.” And particularly at center, where Ryan Bailey has been a stalwart, a rookie on that 2000 squad. Having two or three specialists at the key position is vital. “John Mann is definitely a good player. But it comes down to it being his first Olympic Games.”
But the European analyst who touted Americans’ capacity to excel at the Olympic Games is right. With the level of talent the US faces, “we had no choice. We had to be mentally high.”
The US men next take on Romania, who pummeled host Great Britain in their first match, on July 31st at 19:40 GMT.