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Italy edges U.S. women’s water polo team at worlds, ends five-peat bid

US Women's Water Polo

FUKUOKA, JAPAN - JULY 24: Giulia Viacava of Team Italy shoots in the Women’s Water Polo Quarterfinal match between Team United States and Team Italy on day nine of the Fukuoka 2023 World Aquatics Championships at Marine Messe Fukuoka Hall B on July 24, 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

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The U.S. women’s water polo team’s bid for a fifth consecutive world title was foiled by Italy in the quarterfinals on Monday.

The Italians prevailed 8-7, ending the Americans’ 26-game win streak in world championship play dating to a 2015 loss to Italy in group play.

“The Italians were fantastic,” U.S. head coach Adam Krikorian said. “I mean that’s the best I’ve seen them play in a long time.

“I’m not shocked by the result. Obviously disappointed, and, clearly, there’s just a lot for us to work on. I’ve been saying it to the team for the last couple months. We’ve got a long ways to go. I think, sometimes, as Team USA, the success that we’ve had, I mean, we’ve been living a little bit in fantasy land in some sense. This is honestly just a kind of knock back down to reality.”

Triple Olympic gold medalist Maggie Steffens scored four goals, while two-time Olympic champion goalie Ashleigh Johnson had nine saves.

The seven goals scored were the fewest for the U.S. in Olympic or world championship play dating to the 2019 World semifinals, when it also scored seven.

The last time a team held the U.S. to fewer than seven goals at an Olympics or worlds was the Netherlands in the 2015 final.

Italy finished fourth at last year’s worlds and was runner-up to the U.S. at the 2016 Olympics.

The U.S. has won every world title dating to 2015, plus the last three Olympic titles.

It is the only nation to win more than two consecutive men’s or women’s world titles and next year can become the first nation to win four consecutive Olympic titles for men or women.

From the start of 2016 through the second game of the Tokyo Olympics, the U.S. went undefeated among the Olympics, World Championships, World Cup and World Super League Final.

The Americans have since lost at least one game in all four of those competitions. They are now in the consolation bracket and can finish no higher than fifth place.

While the U.S. still has it biggest stars from the last two Olympics — 2016 Olympic MVP Steffens, Tokyo Olympic MVP Maddie Musselman and goalie Johnson — seven of its 13 players from Tokyo were not on the roster at worlds.

“Ten years of just dominance, I mean that’s just never going to happen again,” Krikorian said. “We were living in some kind of alternate universe in some sense. This brings us back to down to reality, again, but it does make you appreciate what we’ve been through. In the same breath, one of my next thoughts is, OK, I’m glad that’s over with. Not to take anything away from the next two games, but we’ve got a year to try to improve and just get better.”

The U.S. men play in the quarterfinals Tuesday against Hungary, eyeing their first Olympic or world semifinal since 2009.