Clint Dempsey scored the sixth fastest goal in World Cup history, and John Brooks scored a remarkable late goal to lead the Americans past Ghana 2-1 in their World Cup Group G match opener in Natal on Monday.
It was an incredible result, made of equal parts attrition and magic, and it took the USA to second-place in the group of death, tied with Germany on points, and behind only on goal difference.
Brook’s header in the 86th minute was astonishing, and not because it was his first for the national team, nor because it was the first scored by an American on his debut in the World Cup for 12 long years. It was, in fact, a straightforward header off a fine corner kick sent in by Graham Zusi that caught Ghana flat.
No, what was remarkable about it is that Ghana had pinned the Americans on the ropes for a solid hour after a series of injuries depleted the USA, and Andre Ayew had looked as if he was about to lead the Black Stars all the way back, having scored just minutes earlier.
Instead, out of nothing but heart, the Americans went all the way down the field, willing themselves forward in the steam of Natal, won a corner — and finally exorcised the memory of two bitter defeats suffered at the Africans’ hands.
Ghana had eliminated the Americans in each of the past two World Cups, and when this draw was made, groans could be heard across the USA. Not only had the Americans been drawn into the group of death alongside powerhouses Portugal and Germany, but the USA had to get a result here in Natal to have any realistic hope of progressing.
So, when Dempsey raced onto a simple ball in from the left side from Jermaine Jones to slam home past Adam Kwarasey in the nets with just 34 seconds gone off the clock, the 20,000 or so fans who had filled fully half this stadium erupted. It was a dizzying start for the Americans — and the earliest they had ever scored in this competition by far — and it had manager Klinsmann screaming on the sidelines. It felt at that moment as if the Americans could finally get what has been a crushing weight off their backs.
Their joy was tempered just 19 minutes later when Jozy Altidore pulled up short, clutching his left hamstring. Altidore was taken off on a stretcher and Aron Joahannsson had to be slotted in immediately. Altidore’s condition was diagnosed as a strained left hamstring which is potentially a massive blow to the Americans’ hopes. If Altidore’s injury is mild, he is likely to miss at least one game — but if it is severe, his World Cup is over. The USA do not have a direct replacement for the Sunderland man — Chris Wondolowski is a good pro but simply too slow — and losing a target man of Altidore’s stature changes the equation for the USA against Portugal and Germany.
"To have that happen to him, your heart just goes out to him and we hope he can come back," Dempsey said after the match. "But, Aron [Joahannsson] came in and did a good job."
And that changed the equation considerably. While the Americans smartly funneled Ghana’s pressure out wide right, they lost the ability to break the pressure and their rotation in the middle of the park to cover runners was poor. Michael Bradley — usually so strong for the USA — showed little of the movement and ability he has rightly been feted for. But Kyle Beckerman, regarded by some as a question mark, was outstanding, showing both poise and positioning.
The hits kept on coming. Dempsey took a shot to the face in the 33rd minute when John Boye caught him with a very high cleat, smashing the captain’s nose and forcing him to come off for treatment. Dempsey was left with a cut and a scowl, and he looked dazed from the contact. Matters worsened five minutes later when Matt Besler made a fine tackle and then came up clutching his hamstring as well. He would limp through the remainder of the half as well. When Jermaine Jones and Sulley Muntari tangled, and Jonas Eriksson walked over to reprimand both, American fans could have been forgiven if they feared the worst.
Besler would come off at the half, suffering what was reported as “tightness” in his hamstring, and Brooks was thrown on in his place. Meanwhile, Ghana continued to flow at Howard’s net. Muntari started to pull the strings, and when Asamoah Gyan headed over the bar after being found alone in space, there were many hearts in mouths in the stands. Gyan would force a fine save just minutes after that, and it looked as if the Americans might break right then and there.
They did not, and as Ghana continued to lump it forward — and miss their chances — manager James Appiah threw on Kevin-Prince Boateng and Michael Essien in a attempt to create some sort of spark. Finally, with just seven minutes left, the dam broke.
Gyan slipped Andre Ayew with a superb backheel, and the Marseille man made the most of his chance, ripping his shot past Howard. It was a fine goal and it was fully deserved. The Americans had spent nearly an hour doing nothing but defending. It was also the one time that the Americans had failed to force Ghana out wide right — and that was meat and drink to a scorer of Ayew’s caliber. It looked as if the floodgates were going to open.
And then came Brooks.
"Since the first time Brooks has come in, he’s shown a commitment and a pride to be here within this group," added Bradley. "He’s not a big talker, but everyone can see what a great guy he is. He came on in a difficult situation and got a great winner."
The USA now have five days to get healthy. They next face a wounded Portuguese side, spanked by Germany earlier on Monday, in Manaus. An open question is how much gas there is left in the Americans’ tank — regardless of what happened here, they were always going to need at least one other result.
"We’ve got to do a better job of keeping the possession, a better job of building out of the back." added Dempsey. "I think we’re still dangerous on set pieces, and I think this will give us confidence and a boost going forward.
"The conditions were tough, it was humid and you had to run more – I think my nose was broken so it was hard for me to breather – but the guys showed a lot of heart. We worked hard to be here, and we wanted to make sure we were ready for games like these and I think our fitness showed."