KAZAN, Russia -- The United States women's water polo team won the world championship title Friday for the first time since 2009, beating the Netherlands 5-4 in the gold medal game.
With two goals from tournament MVP Rachel Fattal and a dominant goalkeeping performance from Ashleigh Johnson, who stopped 12 of 16 shots with lightning reactions, the win puts the U.S. in a strong position as it prepares to try to retain its Olympic title next year.
"Our defense was nailed and it led to our offense," Fattal said. "We have an amazing goalie behind us, you can trust her completely. ... It's so much fun to play like that."
The U.S. has retained only four players from the 2012 Olympic triumph as it brings through young talent for next year's games in Rio de Janeiro.
"This is a new team and it was my dream to step up," Johnson said. She made a mistake when allowing Miloushka Smit's opening goal for the Netherlands in the first quarter, and said the desire "to fix what I did wrong" fired her up for big saves later, including on a penalty shot.
Smit's goal gave the Dutch a 1-0 lead at the end of the first quarter, before Fattal and 17-year-old Maddie Musselman responded with goals for the U.S. and Lieke Klaassen of the Netherlands tied up the game for halftime.
Another Fattal goal in the third was canceled out by Maud Megens for the Dutch before Kiley Neushul and Courtney Mathewson made it 5-3 to the U.S. The Americans kept it tight in the final quarter under heavy Dutch pressure and, although Megens made it 5-4 with a bouncing shot, Johnson and the U.S. defense preserved the lead.
After the U.S. win quieted a Russian crowd that strongly supported the Netherlands, head coach Adam Krikorian joined his players in the pool to celebrate.
The U.S. had started the tournament slowly, losing 10-9 to Italy in the group stage, something which Krikorian said had provided extra motivation.
"It gave us a big wake-up call, and ever since then, we've been really, really tough defensively and that was the difference in the game today," he said. "We were excited, focused and our intensity on the defensive side of the ball was incredible."
For the Dutch, silver is a good result in the country's first world championship final since 1998, said goalkeeper Laura Aarts.
"When the game ends, you're really sad because you lost the game, but if I look back now I'm really proud," she said. "We are a really young team and we did a great job."
Earlier, Italy won the bronze 5-4 on penalties after tying 7-7 with Australia.
Arianna Garibotti scored the winning penalty after goalkeeper Giulia Gorlero had saved a shot from Australia's Hannah Buckling. In regulation time, Tania di Mario led the Italians with three goals.
The men's final is Saturday, as Serbia faces Croatia for the gold medal. Greece and Italy will compete for the bronze.