BEIJING -- The United States' most significant men's water polo victory in two decades might not mean anything.
Tony Azevedo scored three goals and the Americans used stifling defense to upset world No. 1 Croatia 7-5 in Olympic preliminary play Saturday.
The victory, the most surprising of the week at Yingdong Natatorium, could be meaningless if the U.S. doesn't beat Germany on Monday. But if the Americans win, they would earn a quarterfinal spot and would have an outside shot at advancing directly to the semifinals.
The United States (3-1) never trailed against the mustachioed Croats (3-1), getting an early power-play goal from Azevedo, building a three-goal lead in the second quarter and holding on down the stretch.
"They were playing as well as anyone here," U.S. coach Terry Schroeder said. "To beat them, I think upstairs is where these guys have needed to improve the most over the last couple of years. They've got to know now that if they play like that, they can win this thing. They honestly can win this thing. It's a huge boost, but it doesn't mean anything unless we win Monday."
Tim Hutten, Ryan Bailey, Peter Varellas and Adam Wright also scored for the U.S., which held the Croatians to 0-for-15 shooting from the 5-meter mark. Goalkeeper Merrill Moses stopped 11 of 16 shots.
Afterward, the Americans celebrated in the pool much longer than usual — savoring every second of the victory.
"I've been waiting for that one for a while," Moses said.
The Americans came to Beijing as long shots to return to the medal stand for the first time since 1988.
But confidence grew with victories against China and Italy, and in a 4-2 loss to Serbia two days ago. The U.S. had several chances to upset the Serbs, but Azevedo was 0-for-8 shooting, including a missed penalty shot.
"Tony's one of the best players in the world," Schroeder said. "Serbia really shut him down and he came out with something to prove today. He came out with a little fire in his eyes and did a great job for us, found those holes and was able to put the ball away."
Azevedo scored the team's first two goals Saturday, both in extra-man situations. His third was the most impressive.
He lifted his upper body out of the water, and with two defenders in his face, swayed to the left and zipped the ball past four flailing arms and the goalie. His acrobatic goal made it 6-4 with about 5 minutes to play.
Maro Jokovic pulled the Croats to 6-5 with 2:17 remaining. But Bailey's power-play goal from the right wing with 1:33 left gave the Americans a cushion.
"We came into this tournament and knew we had the capabilities of beating everyone," Azevedo said. "This really showed that that game (against Serbia) was a fluke and we're a gold-medal-contention team."
The Croats — who grew mustaches in a statement of for team unity — were the consensus pick to win gold in Beijing, and looked every bit the part in their first three games. They beat Italy, Serbia and Germany by a combined 15 goals.
Players talked like it was a foregone conclusion they would win Group B and earn an automatic spot in the semifinals.
"Us and Serbia are a bit better than the U.S.A," Croatian captain Zdeslav Vrdoljak had said. "They probably will be the third team in our group."
The top three teams in each group advance, with the winner going straight to the semifinals.
In other games Saturday, Germany (2-2) beat Italy (1-3) 8-7 to stay alive, and Greece (1-3) defeated Canada (0-4) 13-7 in a matchup of previously winless clubs.
The Canadians played without coach Dragan Jovanovic, who served a one-game suspension following his ejection Thursday against Australia. Jovanovic watched from the top row of the stands, and had little to cheer about.
The Americans, though, were downright giddy following their biggest victory in two decades. But Schroeder didn't plan to let them enjoy it for too long.
"We have to celebrate for five minutes and get ourselves ready for Monday," said Schroeder, a three-time Olympian and longtime team captain who took over last year in an effort to turn around a slumping program. "That's the only game that matters right now."