U.S. men's water polo coach Dejan Udovicic

U.S. men seeking Olympic berth at Pan American Games


Dejan Udovicic left the reins of a European water polo juggernaut for this type of scenario.

“I’m always looking for a new challenge,” the U.S. men’s water polo coach said in June.

Udovicic, 44, and Team USA will get just that Monday night in Toronto (3 p.m. Pacific) when they take on Canada in the semifinals of the Pan American Games.

The Americans can qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro by winning the Pan American tournament or finishing second to an improved Brazil, which as the Olympic host owns an automatic berth to the Games.

Brazil plays Argentina in the second semifinal Monday . The tournament final is Wednesday.

The Pan American Games offer the U.S. men their best chance to qualify for the Olympics and rightfully earned a top priority from Udovicic, the Americans’ second-year coach from Belgrade, Serbia.

“Our goal this year is to win Pan American Games,” said Udovicic, who guided Serbia to bronze medals at the past two Olympics and eight major FINA titles. “Everything else is (a) plus.”

Team USA (3-0) will not only attempt to beat a strong Canadian team (2-1) in a match played in the most populous Canadian city, it will try to do so with just four returning Olympians.

Captain Tony Azevedo, fiery goalie Merrill Moses, defender Jesse Smith and center John Mann (Corona del Mar) are the only returners from the U.S. team that finished eighth at the 2012 Olympics.

In 2008, Azevedo, Moses and Smith helped the Americans capture the silver medal.

But the Santa Ana-based U.S. team is high on its up-and-coming talent, including Orange County products Luca Cupido (Newport Harbor), Josh Samuels (Villa Park), Bret Bonanni (Mater Dei) and 6-foot-8 goalie McQuin Baron (Mater Dei). Bonanni leads the Pan American Games in scoring with 15 goals.

“We have really just amazing talent on this team,” Azevedo said last month. “A lot more than we’ve almost had in the past, except (there’s) a lot of inexperience.”

Cupido, who played his freshman season at Cal in the fall, has earned some of the strongest reviews.

“Luca is one of the most talented players right now in his age in the world,” Udovicic said of the 19-year-old who has dual citizenship with the United States and Italy. “I think that he can be groomed still to improve.”

Mann, 30, also is an emerging standout at center, filling the void left by veteran Ryan Bailey (UC Irvine).

“There’s something about holemen. They get better with age,” Azevedo said with a smile. “Bailey was the same way.”

Behind a pressing defense and swift counterattack, the Americans showed their promise in early June by sweeping reigning European champion Serbia in a four-game series in the United States.

But as the FINA World League Super Final in late June, Team USA went 1-5 en route to a fourth-place finish in Italy.

The lone victory: an 8-7 triumph against nine-time Olympic champion Hungary in the quarterfinals.

Azevedo believes the U.S. team is progressing under Udovicic, who has stressed multiple defensive sets and conditioning. And Udovicic appears firmly behind his new team with its biggest challenge ahead.

“This is the best group we’ve got,” he said. “Not (the best) young guys. This is the best group and I’m believing in them.”

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