New York City — The United States men’s and women’s teams have surpassed all expectations at the 10th CMAS Underwater Rugby (UWR) World Championships that ended on August 1, 2015 in Cali, Colombia. Matched against strong opponents, the US teams were able to showcase the sharp rise of the sport in North America, not only in terms of the number of players and clubs but also the quality of the game. This report focuses on the men’s experiences and a report on the women’s team will follow soon.
Growing steadily stronger since the national tryouts:
Since US head coach Jose Luis Echeverry organized the first national tryouts in January 2015 for the Underwater Society of America (USOA), the team has developed into a strong band of players. “We had 42 candidates at the try-outs”, recollects Echeverry, ”and I knew that we’d get a good team together.” Since then, the US team organized five additional clinics to work on their coordination and strategic moves.
US teams had previously participated in two World Championships that are held every four years, namely in 1999 and 2003, when the games took place in Germany and Denmark, respectively. This year, the US men came well prepared and with a strong team spirit to the 10th World Championships. The team won most of their matches, showed skill and heart and convinced the traditional UWR powerhouses that much can be expected from the dynamic US team. Mike Picot, who played in the US selection in 2003 and 2015 said, “we already had good players in 2003. But this time, we really have a strong and versatile team we can be proud of.”
A tough start for Team USA in the preliminary round
The World Championships presented themselves as a continuous improvement of the team’s strength. Due to a random draw in the group phase, the US men first faced two very experienced and strong opponents: Austria and Sweden, the majority of whose players also play in the elite European Underwater Rugby League (EUWR).
Given the structure of the championship the first game of the competition against the Austrian team was the tournament’s single most important match. Head coach Echeverry reminded the team to stick to the rotation system, to provide assistance and to trust in the strong fore-checking skills. But the US players were unable to get into their game and a strong Austrian team was able to score early in the game. To win the game, the US team had to play more offensively and hold the ball close to the Austrian goal. However, this tactic made the team vulnerable for counterstrikes and despite some strong attacks, the experienced Austrian players were able to exploit avoidable mistakes by the US team.
When the Austrian goalie pushed away American attacker Mike Picot who had stolen the goal just before the American received a pass that would have led to the deserved first goal of the team, the referees called a penalty shot against Austria. US defender Daniel Naujoks executed the penalty fast, getting quickly under the Austrian goalie and though the keeper brushed Naujoks’ mask away it took only 15 seconds before the ball was sunk decisively in the net.
When the match finished after 30 minutes, the score card counted 10:1 for Austria. In an interview about the first US goal in this competition, Naujoks highlighted that the team sold itself short. “We can play much better — maybe because it was the first game of the competition but for some reason, today wasn’t our day”, he said. The US team had come to Cali to show that they can exert pressure and score clean goals to win matches. It took only 48 hours before this prediction was proven right.
A good fight against Sweden
The next day, the US men were confronted with the Swedish team that had previously won against Austria with 9:0. US Coach Echeverry had made several adjustments to the team to avoid getting a goal through a fast break by the quick Swedes and to strengthen the team’s defense. The US men played strong and were able to control the ball for long stretches of the game, avoiding the aggressive fore-checking by their opponent.
Following several fouls by Sweden, Team USA was able to advance the ball in coordinated free-throws, bringing the Swedes several times in difficulties at the Swedish basket. When the final bell rang, Sweden had won 11:0 but the US team had made the Swedes fight for each goal and inch, showing to the traditional powerhouse that the sport is developing strongly in the United States. Austrian players who had watched the game against Sweden were overheard saying, “we were lucky that the US had not found into their game earlier. This is a very strong team that can be dangerous for any of the other teams here.” Arguably the most experienced player on the Swedish team, Jim Nilsson, who participated in a total of five World Championships, two of which he and his team left as world champions and one with a silver medal, commented on the games of the Swedish team against the US. “The [US] team we met in the qualifying round was really something unexpected to us,” he said. “Team USA kept playing with furious energy throughout the game – something rarely seen for an underdog team. Really impressive. And your tactics paid off. Playing close to each other, with good passes, and intelligently backing out of tough situations, you made it very hard for us to get hold of the ball.” Looking into the future, Nilsson stated that “Of all teams, I expect the US to amaze the world of underwater rugby the most in the years to come.”
Strong US triumphs with a clear 20:0 win over South Africa
As only the first two teams of each group advanced to the play for the top 8 ranks, the US men joined the group playing for places 9-12. “With different opponents in the group phase, we would have played in the best-8 group”, said head coach Echeverry, “but there’s always an element of luck in competitions. That’s just part of the game.” But the US team was eager to show that each match mattered, starting with the first team they faced in the final round: South Africa. The South African team had already played the 2011 World Championships in Finland with strongly spirited players who were eager to represent African rugby.
By this third game of the competition, the US men had fully found into their game. Hungry to win, it took the US only a little more than a minute to score the first goal. The team rotated the ball well, and came in strong with several attackers to score a total of 20 goals, while keeping their net clean. Two of the goals were penalty shots as the South African keeper had the shoulder in the goal. The first penalty shot was executed once again by Daniel Naujoks who delivered quickly and in a similar way as against Austria. US forward Mateo Galeano took the second penalty shot. He came in vertically from on top of the basket and while almost scoring through a hole the keeper had presented, the goalkeeper was able to lay his hands on the ball. With determination, Galeano went after the keeper and before the goalie could reach surface—and thus successfully save the penalty—the attacker had again gained possession of the ball. Both players turning around, the goalkeeper was able to strip the ball again from Galeano just before he could sink the ball in the net. In a remarkable attempt, the US striker once more went for the goalie, got hold of the ball, stayed down and was able to score in a penalty that had kept the audience on their toes. In honor of the team’s first victory during this World Championship, the players proudly lined up on the ‘dimly seen shore’ of the Alberto Galindo pool when the US national anthem sounded loudly, amplified by the players’ voices after ‘the perilous fight.’
3 more points for Team USA after a win over a strong Australian team
On the fourth day of the World Championships, Team USA faced Australia. The Australian men were well conditioned and physically strong. Many of them had come to Colombia a month ahead of the championship to train with the best Colombian teams. Australia had played well against Spain the previous day, almost defeating the Spanish players.
In the match against Australia, the US men presented an organized game, controlling the ball, defending strongly, and going aggressively after the ball. But this sport teaches us that a brief slip in a team’s attention can be punished. Thus, in the middle of the first half, Australian forward Justin Bees managed to break-away with the ball from mid-field and lay the ball in the open net just before the US keeper reached the goal. Thus, Bees, who lives in Colorado and regularly plays with US teams, put Australia with 1:0 in the lead.
Now the US was under pressure to show that they can score when needed. A goal can always change the dynamics of the game. But the experienced US team kept their calm, believing in the team’s strength. Defender Daniel Lopez said after the game, “we knew that we just had to focus, pull together, and play our game. And that’s exactly what we did.”
Shortly afterwards, the US offense went in strong. US goalie Giancarlo Castro brought the ball in from the safe corner, keeper and coach Jose Echeverry made the first attempt to score and passed to Daniel Lopez who equalized the score to 1:1. US Capitan Giancarlo Castro recalls, “that was an important goal, but we wanted to score more, and we knew we could.” In the second half of the match, the US team dominated and had several chances to score without converting them. It was then that Daniel Naujoks was able to shove the ball from above the goal passing the Australian keeper’s head, leading to the winning score of 2:1.
Thus, after the fourth match of the United States Underwater Rugby team, the players joined in as the US anthem sounded over the competition pool for the second time.
Third victory in a row after Team USA overcomes Spain
The last match for team USA would decide whether US or their Spanish opponent would be in the 9th place. As had the US, Spain had also won against South Africa and Australia. Given the better goal difference, the US would have prevailed in the overall ranking if the teams had tied. But team USA was not keen on a draw. “Many of us have played the Spanish players at the Champions Cup last year”, said head coach Echeverry before the match. “Then, we drew and won in the penalty shoot out. Now we want to win by making goals in the regular time. If we play our game, I know we can do it.”
But the Spanish would not grant an easy victory. In an evenly matched game, both teams played strong rugby and made no mistakes. After an intense press play by the US players around the Spanish basket it was forward Mateo Galeano to score the winning goal. While the US team had a few additional chances to strike again and also the Spanish team came once close to the American net, the match ended with a deserved 1:0 victory for the US men.
The third time in a row, the US players lined up arm in arm to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner. Deviating from the normal protocol, and in a display of mutual respect for a good last game for the 9th place of this World Championship the Spanish players joined the US team on their side of the pool for the US national anthem.
US players keep their head high: We’re coming back even stronger in 2019
Carol Rose, president of the Underwater Society of America (USOA), the governing federation for underwater sports in the US, including underwater rugby, and a charter member of the US Olympic Committee, congratulated the performance of both US teams at the World Championship. “Underwater rugby has had a great growth spurt”, she stated, “Teams are now active in Florida, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut and California.” Optimistically, she concluded “I can see only upward and forward action for underwater rugby.”
Rüdiger Hüls, president of World Underwater Federation CMAS’ UWR Commission that organized the World Championships, praised the strong US participation and the team’s quality play. Several team captains and coaches expressed that they look forward to competing against Team USA. Overall, the American rugby players were considered a strong international team that has the technique and strength to play at the highest level.
Many players voiced that they were looking forward to playing US teams at the annual Champions Cup and several teams suggested that the US team would be predestined to organize a high-level competition, such as open Pan-American championships.
For the time being, the US men’s team leaves the World Championship with their heads held high. They have played strong opponents, won more matches than they lost, scored more goals than they received and demonstrated the increasing sophistication and quality of the game in the US. “This experience was invaluable for the development of UWR in the US”, said team manager and defender Rolexi Pinzon, who also serves as USOA’s assistant director for underwater rugby. “We also enjoyed the press coverage, both here in Colombia where we participated in a live TV show and gave many interviews, but also in the US media. Several groups of fans also watched the games live in California, Texas, New York and Boston. This is an important moment for us”, Pinzon clarified and added, “we are also very grateful to the US women’s team whose support during our matches was amazing; as we tried our best to support them during theirs.”
But the players were certain that the team would come back much stronger for the next world championships in 2019 that will be organized in Italy. “We’ll be even faster, stronger, and more organized by then — you just wait and see”, said coach Echeverry. “But for now, it’s time to celebrate today’s success. We can be proud of what we achieved here in Cali”, he added and smiled.
USA UWR Press Officer
Stats men’s Team USA
Game States (* = win)
US – Austria: 1:10
US – Sweden 0:11
US – South Africa: 20 :0*
US – Australia: 2:1*
US – Spain: 1:0*
Goals scored: 24
Goals received: 22
Final rank: 9th