July 26, 2021

TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. women’s water polo team won a battle of attrition with China 12-7 to inch closer to the knockout stages of the Olympic event on Monday, in a match in which their captain Maggie Steffens suffered a cut that left blood streaming from her nose.

After crushing Japan in their Group B opener at Tatsumi Water Polo Centre on Saturday, the world and Olympic champions were put to the test by China, but came through with flying colours.

For the second game in a row, the U.S. made a sluggish start that had their coach Adam Krikorian venting his frustration on the sidelines as the first half ended with the teams deadlocked at 6-6.

“We struggled,” Krikorian said. “But I can’t tell you how proud I am for us to be able to find the courage, the heart, the determination to finish that off.

“It may not have looked the prettiest, but that may be our best win of the year. Today we showed what we’re made of. We didn’t necessarily show our talent and our ability, but we showed our heart and character.”

U.S. goalkeeper Ashleigh Johnson, arguably the world’s best in her position, failed to make a single save in the first quarter as China, who have never finished on the podium, took a shock two-goal lead and briefly threatened an upset.

Rachel Fattal snuffed out that threat when she drew the U.S. level at 4-4 in the first, but it was only in the third quarter, with one minute, 46 seconds left on the clock, that the Americans finally gained a decisive advantage.

Paige Hauschild finished off a counterattack to break the deadlock, before quickfire goals from the Fischer sisters, Aria and Makenzie, gave them some breathing room.

Makenzie scored her third at the start of the fourth quarter and it was plain sailing from there on out, with Johnson back to her imperious best and ending the match with seven saves.

In all, nine U.S. players scored, including Steffens, who caught a blow to the face early in the match that forced her out of the pool twice in the second half as medics worked to stem the bleeding.

“Her nose still looks better than mine,” Krikorian smiled, promising his skipper would be fighting fit for the team’s penultimate Group B game against Hungary on Wednesday.

Hungary were held to a 10-10 draw by the Russian Olympic Committee team in the other match in Group B, while Australia trailed by three goals at halftime but roared back to beat the Netherlands 15-12 and claim their second win in Group A.

European champions Spain also made it two wins in two, beating Canada 14-10 to stay level on points with Australia at the top of their group.

(Reporting by Simon Jennings in Bengaluru; Editing by Christian Radnedge)