Serbia humbles U.S. in men’s water polo prelim, and that’s OK

LONDON — The U.S. men's water polo team's first loss was a humbling one. Serbia, picked by many to win gold in the London Games, physically punished the Americans and took advantage of numerous defensive breakdowns to win 11-6 on Saturday night in London.

"From every loss you learn a great deal. Especially a loss like this," said attacker Tony Azevedo.

"Everybody gets a chance to check themselves mentally, go home, and realize we just got our asses kicked."

That they did, and not just on the scoreboard. Serbia mugged U.S. players around the pool, specifically targeting center Ryan Bailey, who still managed to score twice in the loss.

Is Serbia a physical team?

"Yeah, for sure," said Azevedo.

Are they a dirty team?:

"Well, you know, they're definitely the most physical. They take advantage of every knee and punch they can. But that's just how the game is now," he said.

[ Related: Disallowed goal leads to Croatian water polo victory over Spain ]

So the U.S. was dominated by Serbia in the preliminary round. Yet why does this sound familiar and strangely encouraging?

In the 2008 Summer Games, the U.S. and Serbia were in the same group and met in preliminaries. Serbia won the match, 4-2.

The teams met again in the medal round. The U.S. rocked them, 10-5, en route to the silver medal.

"In Beijing, they kicked the [crap] out of us in the first game and then we beat them when it mattered," said Azevedo.

Did that history make it difficult for the Americans to put much weight into the prelim match?

"I thought we were pretty fired up coming into the game. That if we won this game, we get a much better matchup in the later rounds," coach Terry Schroeder said. "I just hope we get another shot at them down the road."

As does Azevedo, who is convinced the U.S. is the better team.

"Most of [the loss] is us. Look, Serbia's a great team. They're clearly right now the favorite. But we play our game, we win that game," he said.

"We're known for not giving up counter goals. We gave up six counterattack goals today. That's unheard of."

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