By Michael Rushton, Olympics Writer
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The U.S. Olympic men's water polo team seems have to hit its stride at the right time.
Some big victories over the powerhouse Hungarians have the veteran American unit thinking gold. It will look to deliver at the London Olympics under the inflatable roof of the temporary Water Polo Arena.
Excluding the 1904 Games, when the Americans had the only three teams participating in water polo, the U.S. has never captured gold, but is coming off a silver medal showing in Beijing for its third second-place finish and sixth overall medal in 104 years.
The silver medal came as a bit of a surprise given that the Americans were seeded ninth heading into the games, but they went 4-1 in the preliminary round before knocking off Serbia in the semifinals of the medal round following a quarterfinals bye.
The Americans couldn't extend the run in the championship match, falling 14-10 to Hungary, which won its third straight Olympic gold in men's polo. The Central European country won its ninth gold all-time in men's water polo and 15th medal overall.
The United States, meanwhile, grabbed its first medal in the sport since back- to-back silvers in 1984 and '88. Attacker Tony Azevedo scored four goals in the loss and returns to London as the club's captain.
Azevedo and center Ryan Bailey will play in their fourth Olympic Games, the first players in USA Water Polo history to do so. The 2012 team will also feature a number of players set to participate in their third Olympics, including defenders Layne Beaubien and Jeff Powers, attacker Adam Wright and utilityman Jesse Smith.
Defenders Peter Hudnut and Tim Hutten, attacker Peter Varellas and goalkeeper Merrill Moses round out those returning from the 2008 squad.
While Hungary is once again considered the favorite, the Americans did beat the country twice in exhibition games recently, their first wins over Hungary since 2002.
Both Hungary and the United States were sorted into Group B for the London Games, along with 2008 bronze-medal winning Serbia, fourth-place Montenegro and Romania. Rounding out the talented group is host nation Great Britain, which has won four gold medals in the men's event but none since 1920.
Headlining Group A for the men is Croatia, which finished sixth in 2008 but is coming off its first gold medal in the FINA World League. It won in a penalty shootout over Spain, which is also in Group A.
The other four teams in the group are Greece, Italy, Kazakhstan and Australia.
Like the men, the American women's team is coming off a silver showing in Beijing, but the finish was seen as a disappointment given the squad was ranked No. 1 in the world heading into the games.
The U.S. lost a tight 9-8 contest to the Netherlands, which captured its first medal in the event since it entered Olympic play in 2000 at Sydney. Australia won its second medal in women's water polo, taking the bronze following a 2000 gold.
The American women are the only team to have won a medal in all three of the previous Olympic events, sandwiching a pair of silvers around a 2004 bronze. But with seven players returning from the '08 team, the U.S. is primed to capture gold for the first time.
Captain Brenda Villa and fellow attacker Heather Petri return for their fourth Olympic Games. The 5-foot-4 Villa, known for her quick release, nearly tied the championship match in Beijing as time expired, but saw her shot turned away.
The strength of the women's team is in goal, which is patrolled by the Ann Arbor-born Betsey Armstrong. The 29-year-old is regarded as one of the best goalkeepers in the world and made her Olympic debut in 2008. She has only gotten better, notching 28 saves to lead the U.S. to a gold medal at the 2011 Pan American Games and stopped another 49 shots in a sixth-place finish at last year's World Championships.
While the men's side contains 12 teams, women's water polo at the Olympics splits eight countries into two groups. The U.S. is in Group A with Spain, China and 2008 fourth-place finisher Hungary.
Australia, which won the bronze in Beijing following a thrilling 12-11 win that was decided in penalty shootout, is in Group B with Italy, Russia and Great Britain.
Water Polo events will take place from July 29-Aug. 12. The women's medal game is scheduled for Aug. 9, with the men's set to take place three days later.
07/04 00:42:05 ET