Women’s water polo: A closer look at the U.S. and Italy’s gold medal matchup

A closer look at the U.S. and Italy's gold medal matchup

Olympics: Water Polo-Women's Team-Preliminary Round Group B-China (CHN) vs United States (USA)

Friday’s women’s water polo gold medal match will pit the U.S., the defending gold medalist, against Italy, the 2004 gold medalist and the last team to defeat the U.S., more than a year ago.

No matter who wins Friday, they’ll become the first country to win more than one women’s water polo gold medal.

The Rio gold medal game will take place Friday at 2:30 p.m. ET. Here’s a closer look at both teams and what they’ve done in Rio thus far:

History

This will be the fourth time the U.S. and Italy have met in the Olympic Games. The first came in in the 2004 semifinals, which the Italians won on the way to a gold medal.

After tying in a game in 2008, the U.S. won six straight meetings between the two countries until last year at the world championships when Italy defeated the Americans in the group stages. The U.S. went on to win the world title and have won every match they’ve played since, going 21-0.

Experience

The U.S. has won a medal in every Olympics where women’s water polo has been played, the only team to do so. Since finishing fifth at the 2013 World Championships, the U.S. has gone on to win the world league in 2014, 2015, and 2016, the World Cup in 2014, the Pan American Games in 2015, the world championships in 2015 and the Olympic qualification tournament earlier this year.

Despite all of that, the U.S. has only four players returning from the 2012 Olympic championship team, the least amount of previous Olympic experience of any team in the final four this year. Melissa Seidemann, Maggie Steffens, Courtney Mathewson and Kami Craig all played in the 2012 Games, with Craig being the only player remaining from the 2008 Olympics.

Eight of the 13 players on the U.S. roster are under 23 years old. Center forward Aria Fischer is the youngest, and at 17 she will become the youngest U.S. Olympic water polo medalist, and the youngest women’s water polo medalist from any country.

Italy’s team is much more experienced, returning seven players from their 2012 squad that finished seventh in Rio. Despite the experience, only one has won a medal in an Olympic Games – captain Tania di Mario was on the 2004 team that won gold. The Rio Games is di Mario’s fourth with the Italian national team.

Italy defeated the U.S. in the most recent world championships, and came away from that tournament with the bronze medal. They finished fifth in the world league in June 2016 and took bronze at the European Championships in January.

Rio will be Italy’s first final in a major competition since 2014.

Offense

U.S. captain Maggie Steffens leads all women’s players with 16 goals in five games in Rio. Steffens has been incredibly accurate in her shooting, making 72.7 percent of her shot attempts.

Even when Steffens isn’t having a great game, the U.S. team is deeper than any other in the tournament. They’ve had nine different players reach the score sheet the last two games. Eighteen-year-old Maddie Musselman has also been a big threat for the U.S., scoring 11 goals in Rio.

The U.S. is averaging just over 12 goals a game.

Italy’s goal scoring hasn’t been as prominent, scoring 51 goals in five games. They’re shooting 35 percent as a team from the field.

Arianna Garibotti and Roberta Bianconi have been the big names for Italy during the knockout rounds. Garibotti scored two goals on five shots in the quarterfinals against China, and followed that with a five goal effort on six shots against Russia in the semifinals. She’s scored 12 goals in Rio.

Bianconi scored two goals in each game against China and Russia to bring her total to 11 in Rio.

Defense

Both the U.S. and Italy are led on defense by their goalkeepers.

Ashleigh Johnson had her worst game of the tournament against Hungary, and still came away with eight saves on 18 shot attempts. In the game before that, she had a shutout in her three quarters of play against Brazil.

For the Rio Games, Johnson has 42 saves and a 63 percent save percentage.

Italy’s Giulia Gorlero has been just as strong, if not stronger. Gorlero has double-digit saves in every Rio game except one. She’s stopped 56 shots and has a 65 percent save percentage.

Italy’s defense is only allowing 6.2 goals per game in Rio.

Quotes

USA coach Adam Krikorian after Wednesday’s win over Hungary

On his team’s competitive nature: “We could be playing dominoes back at the apartment and they would all want to beat me and beat each other. This group hates to lose and that makes my job much easier. It’s as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical challenge. I’m fortunate to have an extremely competitive group.”

On playing Italy in the final: “Besides us they have obviously been the hottest team in this tournament. I watched a little bit of their semifinal and I saw how well they were shooting the ball from the outside. Their defense has been really good and their goalie is playing.”

Italy coach Fabio Conti after Wednesday’s win over Russia

“The final is the dream. Every player and every coach wants to reach that dream and now we have to make sure the dream doesn’t stop.”

On Arianna Garibotti: “Arianna is a quality player. She doesn’t feel fear, and that’s what makes her so good. When we are in danger, she can go out there and do everything for us.”

Roberta Bianconi

On facing USA in the final: “We know that they have very good players, so what we have to do is keep our defense united. That is our point of strength.”

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