All answers courtesy of Charlie Wilson, a former water polo player at Occidental and now man about town in the Dallas area. NBC will have live coverage of the women's team gold medal match with Spain at 2 PM Central on Thursday.
1) As someone whose played the sport since they were a teenager, can you explain it to me as simple as possible -- as if I were a five-year old or perhaps a Labrador retriever?
Water polo, on its face, is basketball played in a 30 meter by 20 meter all deep pool, substituting 3 meter by 2 meter goals and goalies for hoops and backboards. Fouls are far less visible, so they are both more easily faked and typically more flagrant.
Non-goalies can only hold the ball with one hand, which is basically the only way to hold on to the ball while treading water anyway, but doing so is not recommended as it renders you basically immune to foul. If you don't put the ball down and simply try to put your body between the opponent and the ball you'll be subject to dunking and the occasional kick in face.
Water Polo employs a hockey-style 20-second ejection foul system for major fouls (overt kicking and pulling) which happen fairly frequently. Power plays generate many of the points in the game. Those aside, quick passing, driving, picks, and fast breaks create scoring opportunities much in the manner they do in basketball.
2) What's the biggest popular misconception about the sport?
Most people know almost nothing about the sport. 50% of people will ask you if the horses can really swim. Other than that, the grueling nature of the sport is often overlooked. Casual observers can be led to believe that floating in water is a forgiving medium. But when confronted with the idea of substituting standing for treading water, running for swimming, and the amount of exertion required to change direction quickly, one quickly realizes how it is considered one of the world's most difficult sports.
3) What style does Team USA tend to play when compared to the rest of the world?
The men's team focuses mostly on defense. They generally run a zone, forcing either a bad pass into the center that can be picked off or stolen, or a long shot from outside, then being ready taking the easy points on transition. Your European teams typically depend on quick passing on offense, getting the defense and goalie off balance for a quick catch-and-shoot, or an opening at center that can generate a shot opportunity or power play situation.
4) Does most of Team USA play water polo professionally or is it more of a hobby?
The US players typically do not play for European clubs, though some of the best players (Tony Acevedo, Ryan Bailey, Merrill Moses) still do or have in the past. Instead, they participate in club play for the countries premier clubs (NY Athletic, Newport Water Polo Foundation). Generally, Water Polo players are in it for the love of the game rather than fame or fortune, since the audience is fairly limited.
5) After the US men won a silver medal in 2008, how disappointing was their loss to Croatia in the quarterfinals on Wednesday?
The US men's water polo team faced one of the top squads, in my opinion, in their quarterfinal match. This Croatian team that took Gold at the Euro Championship in 2010, as well as bronze at the World's in both '11 and '09, had a strong line up, ranging from 6'2" to 6'9" and weighing up to 254 lbs. They had the experience to play calm, confident defense and the size to control the US even in a power play situation.
The United States' two best players, Tony Acevedo and Ryan Bailey, have both participated in a record four Olympics, and may not be expected back for 2016, making this year's run their best chance in recent history, and certainly a disappointment. However with the sport's popularity ever on the rise and new talent being cultivated every year, who knows what four years will bring.
7) What's the biggest differences between the men and the women's game?
Gender has very little bearing on gameplay. There is the common disparity in athleticism, but women's water polo does not want for aggressive, even violent play. The coverage of the suit provides extra material to grab and manipulate when wrestling or trying get an edge on a fast break.
8) The US women got silver in 2004 and 2008. What's the key to them getting over the hump against Spain?
The US women's team have a very strong reputation internationally. While they have settled for second in the past two Olympics, they have won several World Cup and World Championship titles over the past decade. To finally get the gold, however, they'll need to contend with a dark horse Spanish team that features a young lineup and forced Team USA to a draw in the prelim round. In a gold medal match, US women need to rely on their veteran nerves to keep their head and maintain control of the ball rather than getting in a swimming match.