USA's Brooks helps end Ghana hoodoo by turning dreams into reality
JUN 17, 2014 10:54a ET
NATAL, Brazil --
When he strolled off the field after heavy battle, John Brooks got a gentle kick in the rear from assistant coach Andy Hertzog. One of the United States men’s national team’s youngest players had just come up with his country’s biggest moment in this World Cup, punching in the header that vanquished nemesis Ghana in the 86th minute of the USA’s hard-fought tournament opener. He deserved a small showing of affection -- a tough-love reward of sorts.
Brooks, who had slotted into central defense at halftime after Matt Besler had pulled his hamstring in a tackle, could hardly believe it when he made a hard cut at Graham Zusi’s corner kick, watched the ball zip an inch over teammate Geoff Cameron’s head, made solid contact with it himself, and headed it into the ground and out of goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey’s reach.
He lumbered his thick 6-foot-4 frame towards the dugout and then made a beeline for the corner flag, where he belly-flopped and was buried by a pile of his teammates. After they got off of him, he stayed down a while, wallowing in his own incredulity a little longer.
There were many things about that goal that were improbable. For one, it came from a 21-year-old substitute -- the first sub to ever score for the Americans at a World Cup. And from a defender no less, who had never before scored for the USA. Further defying probability, he had divined the goal in his sleep two nights earlier. He had dreamed that he would score against Ghana. On a header. Off a corner. “It was unbelievable,” said a chipper Brooks. “I told some teammates that I dreamed that I score in the 80th minute and we win the game and now it was the 86th minute.”
“It was my first dream [in which I scored,]” added Brooks. “But hopefully not the last.”
What was most unlikely of all, however, was none of the above. It was that Brooks was even there, in an American uniform at a World Cup in a rain-sodden Brazilian coastal town. He could have played for Germany, where he was born, but chose to represent the United States, the nationality of his serviceman father.
Brooks made his debut in a 4-3 win over Bosnia and Herzegovina last August, wherein he was directly responsible for two of the goals conceded. He was plainly a player of immense potential and pedigree – Hertha BSC of the German Bundesliga -- but he was raw. So very raw. He was immature too, missing a practice session with his club last season because he was sore from a large back tattoo he’d gotten.
Still, the talent tantalized. “With John, we saw very early that his passing is amazing,” said head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “He’s very calm for his age. Obviously, he’s strong in the air because he’s so tall. He has the confidence too. And he barely [commits] fouls. We had the feeling he’s ready for this.”
In spite of having represented the USA just three times, and never in a competitive game, Brooks unexpectedly made the World Cup squad over established veteran Clarence Goodson. Still, many believed that he was there just for the experience -- that head coach Jurgen Klinsmann figured he’d be a contributor in the next World Cup cycle and would benefit from the experience, even if he’d never played.
But when Besler came up limp against Ghana on Monday, it wasn’t the more seasoned Omar Gonzalez who came on, but Brooks -- to the surprise of one and all. Klinsmann explained later that he wanted to replace the left-footed Besler with another left-footer -- Gonzalez is a righty. Brooks held his own, after a lone shaky moment which he cleaned up himself, standing tall as Ghana pelted the American penalty area.
“It was not an easy situation for him, to come on at halftime, in those circumstances,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “But I think you saw that he stepped right in and didn’t miss a beat. He found the game away and was calm and composed and read things.”
“I think John showed his talent,” added Klinsmann. “Does he have a lot of stuff still to learn and to grow? It’s just normal. But what a better stage to do that than a World Cup?”
Brooks had quietly impressed his coaches during the last month as Team USA prepared for the World Cup, imbuing them with confidence in him. “We knew that if we had the time now for more than a month to work him through every training session, to teach him some elements of the game, that he’s willing to take that on and learn it quickly,” said Klinsmann.
“We could see in every training session and we could see it in other stuff as well that he’s a very, very good talent coming through the ranks,” the German head coach added. “It was no problem for me at all to make the decision at halftime. We were comfortable with John filling that role.”
Brooks is plainly well liked by his teammates. “He’s been fantastic off the field,” said goalkeeper Tim Howard. “Just a good guy. Comes to train, a really good kid, a quiet kid around the hotel.”
That quietness, however, was something that needed to be addressed. “I’m not that kind of person that talks a lot,” explained Brooks. “They always told me that I should talk because [in] my position you have to talk a lot.”
Clearly, he’d talked enough to get by in his surprise appearance on Monday. And with Besler a question-mark going forward because of his hamstring pull, Brooks might yet dream out loud for a while longer.