The US national team had plenty of heroes in Monday evening’s 2-1 victory over Ghana in Natal, though none will see more of the spotlight than John Anthony Brooks. The 21-year old German-American defender latched onto Graham Zusi’s 88th minute corner kick, out-jumping everyone in the penalty area and finding just enough space to head the ball into the back of the net for a massive goal. Here are ten thoughts on Brooks, his magic moment, and more from the US’ win in their opening match of this World Cup.
1. That win was decidedly American- The characteristics of the American spirit are not easy to ascertain or even comprehend for those on the outside looking in, though this victory provided the world with yet another snapshot of what it means for players to compete with the US emblem on their breast. The US are nowhere close to the top of the heap in this World Cup technically speaking. But such qualities such as determination, grit, humility, pride, and confidence are the gasoline fueling the American engine to grind out results as they did in this 2-1 win over Ghana. The talking point should shift from chastising Jurgen Klinsmann for saying the US has no chance of winning the World Cup to harnessing and recalling that never-say-die fighting spirit.
2. Brooks’ goal wasn’t all Brooks- The US almost had no business winning the corner kick that led to Brooks’ game-winning goal. Were it not for the effort of Fabian Johnson, who tracked down a loose ball and forced the Ghana defender into deflecting the ball over the end line for a corner kick, this game would have probably ended in a tie. Graham Zusi was advertised as being a set piece specialist for the US national team, though he has displayed time and time again in Major League Soccer that his a competent, well-rounded player. His delivery was spot on—and even though Brooks is a relatively young and inexperienced player—it really was harder for him to miss.
3. Geoff Cameron was beyond solid- The North Attleborough, Mass. native played probably his best game at center back, pairing well with both Brooks and Matt Besler and sweeping away any and all crosses and shots. Andre Ayew’s goal to tie the score was the lone moment when Cameron was neutralized, forced to choose between staying on his man or reversing direction and going after Ayew. Portugal will take note of Ayew’s goal, as it lends them a hand in solving how to get by this US back line. That was Cameron’s only mistake, though in truth he should have had more help.
4. Dempsey, ever the captain- Captain America needs to lead by example and be a standout player, and on Monday evening Clint Dempsey did just that. His first goal was pure class and demonstrated that the US’ offensive game is more than just clunky, direct passing. He probably broke his nose, which contributed to his slowed down pace in the second half.
5. Brazilian weather- Taylor Twellman said it best in the ESPN broadcast when he noted that he had never seen so many US players cramp up at one time. Dempsey, Cameron, Jozy Altidore, Matt Besler, and Alejandro Bedoya all pulled up at various times in the game due to pulled or cramping muscles. The pace and intensity of these World Cup games is taking its toll on players, though the weather has certainly played a role, too. The humidity in Natal was at 70 percent, a rate in which it’s relatively easy to dehydrate and lose full use of muscles. This will only get worse for the US’ next game in Manaus, where humidity peaked at 100 percent. Past US teams in all sports, and all of Klinsmann’s teams, have been well-conditioned. But not many of those teams have had to deal with the challenges of playing in the cruel and unusual climate of Brazil.
6. Jermaine Jones is the unsung hero of the night- It became obvious fairly early that DaMarcus Beasley could not cope with defending the left side on his own. He needed lots of help, which he received from Jones who drifted from his natural central midfield to track back. Jones was disciplined, making most of the tackles and rarely getting beaten when working alongside Beasley. Consider that he is the only player on the US roster to have played in Champions League; that kind of experience goes a long way and it showed on Monday night. He helped hold the midfield together and give the US another invaluable defensive piece when necessary.
7. Michael Bradley, US midfield needs to be better- Maybe it was because Dempsey’s goal came just 30 seconds into the game, but the US midfield got overrun and outplayed almost immediately after Ghana went down. The US failed to make the simple pass too often and gave the ball away constantly when passing out of the back. Having Kyle Beckerman and Jones sucked back defending didn’t help, but neither did Bradley. The Toronto FC orchestrator didn’t live up to his nickname of midfield general as he struggled to connect passes and get on the ball. Ghana clearly zeroed in on Bradley as part of their game plan and it was obvious. He will need to break free and see more of the ball against Portugal.
8. Portugal are wounded but not down for the count- Badly wounded, yes, but still dangerous. The Portuguese are a wild card in Group G simply because of the poor form they displayed in Monday’s 4-0 loss to Germany despite their high quality players. Portugal coach Paulo Bento and his players know they can easily right the ship with two wins, both of them attainable, versus Ghana and the US. The US will ride into this game with positive mental momentum, though they cannot take the Portuguese lightly. Though Os Navigadores have choked in the World Cup time and time again, they’ll be keen to play a perfect game versus the Americans.
9. Depth will be key- The most talked about injury is Jozy Altidore’s hamstring strain, which should keep him out at least through the remainder of the group stage. Keep in mind that what seems like a catastrophe was well planned for by Jurgen Klinsmann and his staff. Before he scored two goals against Nigeria less than two weeks ago in a pre-World Cup friendly, Altidore was in poor form and requiring Klinsmann to seriously consider which other goal scorers to take with him to Brazil. Aaron Johanssen did fine off the bench against Ghana, though he needs the US to attack more to be deadly. The same is true for the less experienced, yet still dangerous Chris Wondolowski. No matter who Klinsmann goes with up top against Portugal and beyond, it will be a decision that has been carefully considered for months in answer to the team’s depth and players’ form.
10. It’s doable- Like anything worthwhile and difficult to obtain, winning the World Cup will be achieved in baby steps. The first step is getting through the group stage, which is doable because of not only how the US played, but also because of Portugal’s big loss. The US are capable of earning two more positive results, though they’ll need never before seen focus and prodigious skill to make it happen.
Tweets of the night:
Key Stats: With Dempsey’s goal, he became the first American to score in three World Cups…Dempsey’s goal was the sixth-fastest in World Cup history and the fastest by a US player in World Cup history…John Anthony Brooks’ goal was the first ever World Cup goal by a US substitute…This is the US’ first ever victory against Ghana…Eighty-five percent of teams that win their first game in the group stages make it through to the knockout round…The US last played Portugal in June 2002 at the Korea/Japan World Cup and won 3-2.