LONDON — If the U.S. men's water polo team hopes to win another Olympic medal it will need a makeover in the next 48 hours.
After a demoralizing defeat to Hungary on Monday the 2008 silver medalists advance to the quarterfinals on wobbly legs.
The United States (3-2) finished fourth in its bracket play and will meet Group A champion Croatia on Wednesday.
The team will be heading home soon without a dramatic turnaround after Hungary's 11-6 victory in a rematch of the Beijing Games title match. Hungary won that in a 14-10 shootout and is shooting for its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
Based on Monday's results, the Hungarians should be favored. But not so fast.
"Honestly, it's less about them than it is about us," said Peter Varellas, a Stanford assistant coach and former Cardinal star.
The U.S. players were shaken from their foundation by the way they played defense, allowing Hungary to put on a passing clinic. The Americans also failed to take advantage of opportunities when they got the ball in the center, or hole as it's known in water polo.
"The confidence is not high right now but we have 24 hours to get that back," Varellas said after watching Hungarian Norbert Hosnyanszky lead the way with three goals.
How? It's the question that resonated throughout the Aquatics Centre in the aftermath of such a convincing defeat to a team the United States handled twice in a pre-Olympic series.
Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the shoddy play is that it comes after the Americans stayed in California for the past year to train for the London Games. Team leader Tony Azevedo, another Stanford graduate, persuaded his teammates to stay home instead of play for club teams in Europe where they make a living.
The yearlong training was supposed to give the team a cohesiveness that would carry them through adversity, such as what they experienced Monday. Now coach Terry Schroeder sounds worried.
"We've played some very good quarters and we've played some bad quarters," he said. "And you can't win an Olympic medal that way."
Azevedo, one of the world's most famous players, wants nothing less than a gold medal in his fourth Olympics. So he will do everything he can to help teammates rebound.
"We started playing lackadaisical against Romania and Great Britain and we haven't recovered," he said. "We know that the next game is the one that matters. We've known that from the start."
The quarterfinals are known as the "crossover games" in Olympic tournaments. The winners advance to the medal round by playing an opponent in the opposite bracket. The United States had hoped to position itself to get an easier quarterfinal opponent.
But at this point, nothing will come easy.
Azevedo won't let teammates forget the Hungarian defeat in the coming day because "you throw it away and you lose the valuable lessons you can learn from it."
The Americans promised to bring more intensity to the pool Wednesday because they realize their chance of survival depends on it. Azevedo reminded teammates to play like when they started the game.
"We're playing because we love it," he said. "We don't make any money. I don't know why we're not playing like that."
The next opponent might borrow Hungary's strategy of playing a zone to neutralize Azevedo, the Americans' most effective offensive player. Schroeder plans to figure out a way to get Azevedo more involved. He scored only once Monday — off a penalty shot. Stanford alums Peter Hudnut and Layne Beaubien also had one goal each as did Cal graduate John Mann.
But everyone agreed the United States just needs to limit its opponents' goals.
"We have to find a way to find our heart — and that's playing good defense," Schroeder said.