NATAL, Brazil – U.S. defender John Anthony Brooks has a map on one elbow of Germany, where he grew up, and a map of Illinois, where his father’s family is from, on the other. On Monday, he put all 6 foot 4 inches of his lumbering frame on the map by scoring the United States’ winning goal in the 86th minute in a 2-1 win over Ghana in their World Cup opener.
Few would have expected Brooks, a second-half sub, to save the day, but this was a night where nothing expected happened. From the shotgun start to the withering hamstrings to the missing-in-action play of stalwarts like Michael Bradley.
The unexpected began in the first thirty-four seconds. Nothing in soccer happens in 34 seconds. The teams feel each other out, the play builds from the back, rising like a crescendo. Except on Monday night.
Before the fan chants of "I believe that we will win" could even get started, Clint Dempsey sidestepped defender John Boye, took a quick touch and buried the ball with his left foot into the corner.
He sprinted to the corner and let a primal roar so loud, the folks back home in Nagadouches, Texas, probably heard. On the sideline, coach Jurgen Klinsmann did his best Jim Valvano. With outstretched hands in disbelief, he needed someone to hug or high-five.
Estadio das Dunas, half full of Outlaws and other American crazies, cheered wildly in did-this-really-happen euphoria.
This is the way the United States’ World Cup opener began, only to be followed by 89 minutes, mostly of agony.
In the 21st minute, forward Jozy Altidore grabbed his left hamstring and fell to the pitch. As he was carried off the field in a stretcher, he covered his eyes with his hands. Klinsmann, at Altidore’s side, cradled his striker’s head. A strained hamstring would keep him out the rest of the game. In his place: a 23-year-kid from Iceland, but born in Alabama, named Aron Johannsson.
In the 82nd minute, Andre Ayew finally broke through for the Black Stars, smashing the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard.
Even before the opening whistle, everything seemed to be going the USA’s way. In the afternoon, Germany dominated Portugal, 4-0, a result that favors the Americans. Plus, Portugal defender Pepe was ejected and will miss the game against the USA on Sunday in Manaus.
If Germany’s dominance, and Portugal’s unraveling, continues the Americans chances of getting out of the Group of Death look promising.
When Ghana released its starting XI hours before the game, that too seemed to favor the USA. Ghana coach Kwesi Appiah went with a young line-up to face a physical U.S. team in the heat. At an average age of 25 years, 6 months, Ghana has the youngest team in the tournament.
World class midfielders Michael Essian and Kevin-Prince Boeteng were left out of the line-up, along with Wakaso Mubarak and Abdul Majeed Waris. Goalkeeper Fatau Dauda was replaced by Adam Kwarasey.
Ghana’s Asamoah Gyan had said the Americans had added motivation entering the game. “They’re coming for revenge,” Gyan said earlier. “Mentally they don’t want us to beat them for a third time which will make it interesting and difficult for us.”
Though the U.S. players downplayed past history, this game mattered. Klinsmann had called it as important as a World Cup final and the numbers bear out. Since the 1998 World Cup, when the tournament expanded to 32 with two teams per group advancing, only 9% of teams that lost their first World Cup game (4 of 46) advanced to the knockout stage.
Four years ago, Ghana eliminated the USA in the 2010 Round of 16 by the same score – 2-1 in overtime. In 2006, Ghana sent the USA home in group play.
This time, the Americans just might return the favor.