U.S. team looking for more than a silver lining French fall, 11-7; Unified Team is next


BARCELONA, Spain -- The U.S. men's water polo team has been here before, poised on the verge of something. Twice before in the Olympics they have been left wanting. They have taken their silver medals and gone home to brood for four years.

The team has again found itself on the verge. Yesterday, the U.S. beat France, 11-7, and remained undefeated and leading Group A in the 12-team tournament.

But the players do not yet dare hope that they will win the gold medal. Their toughest matches are yet to come, the next against the Unified Team tomorrow.

"Expect a battle," said Craig Klass, who scored a goal against France in the game at Bernat Picornell pool. "They [the Unified Team] have the players to bang with us. Some of the smaller teams like to play a finesse game against us. But the Soviets have some big guys."

The U.S. team is considered one of the tallest and most physical in the tournament. But, in the past, it has had its problems with teams its own size, most notably the Yugoslavs.

Yugoslavia twice has denied the United States a gold medal in water polo. In 1984, the United States and Yugoslavia tied in the tournament, but Yugoslavia was awarded the gold medal based on goal differential.

Water polo officials found that method of determining a winner unsatisfactory and changed the rules to allow a six-minute overtime period in the medal rounds.

In 1988, the U.S. again played Yugoslavia in the gold-medal match, which went into overtime. The Yugoslavs won on the strength of a huge team whose players averaged 6 feet 6.

Because of recent political events in Yugoslavia, the water polo team is not competing here.

The Americans are not yet talking about winning their elusive gold medal, but can point to recent events to make their case. The U.S. team won its first international tournament in this same pool last year, at the FINA World Cup. The United States has won one Olympic gold medal, in 1904, but the tournament was not open to teams other than Americans.

The win was encouraging enough for the Americans, but being voted the outstanding defensive team in the tournament solidified its reputation as stingy opponents.

"Defense is the key to winning for us," Chris Humbert, a U.S. two-meter player who scored three goals against France. "If you only give up five goals a game, you can win."

Humbert, from Lodi, Calif., is playing in his first Olympics and appears to have overcome his early jitters. After the U.S. team's first win, over Australia, Humbert, 23, said he was so tired he believed he would not be able to swim again.

His recovery was dramatic. He fired a perfect behind-the-back pass to score in the fourth quarter against Czechoslovakia. The U.S. team won that game, 9-3.

Yesterday, Humbert scored twice and said he was ready to play.

"My confidence is 100 percent," Humbert said. "In the first game I was shooting the ball but it was just like throwing it up. Now my shot selection is much better."

Humbert said his game has been greatly aided by the return of Terry Schroeder, a four-time Olympian who had retired from the sport. Schroeder, who also plays the two-meter position, has made Humbert his project.

"He is teaching me everything," Humbert said. "Shots, positions, how to take the beating in the water. I'm much better with him back."

Said Schroeder, who had two assists yesterday: "We know a lot of teams can stay with us for one quarter, two or three. With our [fast break], we may not get a whole lot of goals, but we wear the other team down."

U.S. goaltender Craig Wilson is leading the tournament in saves and had 21 yesterday. His presence -- and stature as the finest goaltender in the world -- also has helped the U.S. team gather itself for its assault on the gold medal.

"Three wins in a row," Wilson said. "That's already better than we did in Seoul. It looks pretty good."

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