Maybe Jurgen Klinsmann knows a little more than many of his critics think.
Not only was defender John Anthony Brooks not expected to play against Ghana in the U.S. opening game of the 2014 World Cup, he was a highly questionable decision to make the team.
But Brooks, stepping in for injured starter Matt Besler at halftime, may have salvaged the Americans’ chances of advancing out of the “Group of Death” with a spectacular header off a corner kick just four minutes after Ghana evened the match on a sweaty and frustrating night in Natal.
The 86th minute strike was a burst of positivity following a collection of distressing events plaguing the U.S. after Clint Dempsey’s improbable first-minute goal. Dempsey’s face was left bloodied after a kick to the face, Jozy Altidore had to be subbed out in the first half with a hamstring strain, and Besler looked hobbled. Meanwhile, the normally reliable Michael Bradley didn’t look like himself, with some errant passes and lackluster play.
But then there was Brooks -- the improbable hero proving his worth on the biggest stage in the world.
Brooks’s shot was text book, and glorious for its simplicity. He out-jumped the Ghana defender marking him, and directed the header down, as players are taught to do as youngsters. The ball bounced past goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey and into the back of the net in a goal that felt like payback for Ghana’s success over the U.S. in the past two World Cups.
The 2-1 victory means the U.S. will enter Sunday’s match with Portugal in Manaus with considerably less pressure. The player who delivered the game winner wasn’t a star midfielder like Bradley, or a veteran forward like Dempsey. It came from a 21-year-old who has barely played for the U.S. and looked so overwhelmed against Ukraine in a March friendly that his future with the U.S. looked to be in doubt, let alone his prospects for making the 23-man roster heading to Brazil.
The son of an American serviceman and German mother, Brooks wasn’t a sure thing to even play for the Yanks by his own choice. The 21-year-old, who plays for Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga, could have chosen to play for Germany, and though he made his debut with the U.S. Under-20 team in 2010, he also played one match for Germany’s Under-20 team in 2012.
Judging by the way he celebrated his first-ever international goal, it was very clear to every observer that Brooks was overwhelmed by the situation. With a shocked expression, he jogged to a spot on the field and planted his face in the turf and covered his head. As the rest of his teammates moved on from patting him on the back in congratulations, Brooks continued to soak in the moment. It seemed as though he couldn’t fully grasp what he had just accomplished.
But it turns out there was more to the moment than just a game-winning goal. Brooks's header was almost literally a dream come true.
“It is a great moment for me,” Brooks told reporters after the match. “It's unbelievable that I had a dream about it.
“I told some teammates that I would score in 80th minute and win the game and I did it - in the 86th minute. The dream was two days ago, and it was also a header from a corner.”
Yes, just when you thought that the Cinderella story couldn’t be more of a fairytale, Brooks managed to top it off by announcing that he dreamed of the moment. Such a story seems par for the course given his route to Brazil.
There were plenty of quality players who were overlooked in favor of Brooks. Klinsmann had a rather rich group of central defenders to choose from like Tim Ream, Michael Parkhurst, and Clarence Goodson. Klinsmann's detractors were quick to point out that such players had more experience, and did a better job with their opportunities. Omar Gonzalez, who is on the 23-man roster, also happens to have more experience than Brooks, yet he remained on the bench when Besler needed to be subbed out.
Instead, Klinsmann kept his faith in Brooks, and it paid off. The German-born head coach saw something that others didn’t in the Berlin-born defender.
Perhaps it’s time for critics to keep their faith in Klinsmann. And stories like Brooks.