John Brooks became an unlikely hero for the United States with a dramatic late winner against Ghana to get the Americans’ World Cup campaign off to a vital winning start.
Brooks, a German-born defender only on the field because of an injury to Matt Besler, rose highest in the penalty box with just over four minutes remaining in Natal to get his first goal for the U.S. in circumstances he will never forget. He looked more surprised as anyone as the ball hit the net and the magnitude of the moment set in.
Just four minutes earlier it had looked like the hopes of an opening three points for the U.S. in the “Group of Death” had been extinguished. After clinging on increasingly desperately to a first-minute lead handed them by Clint Dempsey’s goal, Jurgen Klinsmann’s side were becoming ever-more weary. And Ghana took advantage, with the match’s outstanding moment of quality from Asamoah Gyan setting up Andre Ayew to equalize.
Instead, against all reason and momentum, the U.S. found a response and Brooks pounced from a corner from fellow-substitute Graham Zusi. With a match now to come against a Portugal team weakened by injuries and suspensions and dented physically by a 4-0 hammering by Germany, the win means the U.S. can now envisage a path out of a most arduous of first-round assignments.
Yet, in all the months of planning Klinsmann undertook for this game, he surely never envisaged it turning out quite like this. For the duration of his three-year reign, the former Germany player and coach has repeated his desire for the U.S. to shake off the tag of plucky underdogs, happy to sit back and frustrate. To begin there were signs of the proactivity and greater flexibility going forward that Klinsmann has craved. After just 30 seconds Dempsey combined impressively with DaMarcus Beasley and Jermaine Jones down the left before skipping past a lackluster Ghanaian defender John Baye and finishing crisply inside the far post.
Soon Altidore missed with a header and then had a shot blocked when he might have showed more composure. But when Altidore went off midway through the opening period with a hamstring strain, it was the catalyst for the U.S. to play increasingly on the back foot. Aron Johannsson came on as Altidore’s replacement and, while he may have the potential to be an excellent all-round striker, he lacked the ability of Altidore simply to hold up the ball and help keep possession.
The much-discussed midfield diamond was more often than not converted to four narrow midfielders in front of the back four. Michael Bradley, who has become the team’s outstanding player since the U.S. exited in 2010, for the second-straight World Cup to Ghana, uncharacteristically struggled with his passing and too often turned the ball over. This was not a performance where creative players Bradley and Dempsey – diminished in the first half by a bloodied nose after a boot to the face -- shined. Rather it was one where the U.S.’ traditional battling qualities, epitomized by midfielders Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman, came to the fore.
Ghana’s approach was predictable: to play to their strengths out wide and to attempt to take advantage of the U.S.’ narrow midfield and full-backs with a tendency to drift forward. Christian Atsu down the right was the main threat and his cross deep into first-half injury time perhaps should have been converted by Jordan Ayew. The younger of the two Ayew brothers, a late inclusion in the side after a friendly hat-trick against South Korea, was a disappointment and just before the hour mark was replaced by Kevin-Prince Boateng. The Schalke and former Milan man instantly gave Ghana an extra threat and made the U.S.’ lead an increasingly precarious one.
Worryingly, by that point the U.S. had already lost a second player to a muscle injury when Besler was forced off the interval. His replacement, Brooks, had been a surprise inclusion in the squad after an error-strewn performance in a friendly defeat to Ukraine in March. And again he struggled. Gyan found space in between the new center-back partnership of Brooks and Geoff Cameron and should have made more of a golden chance. Minutes later, Boateng ran easily in behind Brooks and, when his pull-back found Gyan, it took a vital touch from Cameron to deflect the resulting shot over Tim Howard’s bar.
There was little surprise when Ghana finally got their breakthrough with eight minutes remaining. Gyan peeled down the left of the defense and produced a brilliant back-heel to find Ayew, whose shot with the outside of the right foot had too much power for Howard.
At that point, with the U.S. flagging after chasing the ball for much of the game, Ghana looked the team far more likely to grab a winner. Instead, all the Yanks' never-say-die belief garnered them the decisive blow. They will need to be better to have a chance of making the impact Klinsmann desires and perhaps requires at this World Cup, but an unheralded 21-year-old has given them the ideal platform.