John Brooks, a 21-year-old German-American making his competitive debut for the United States, who was on the field only because a starting fullback was hurt, powered a fierce header into the net in the 86th minute Monday to give the United States a 2-1 victory over Ghana in its first match of the World Cup.
Afterward, Brooks said that he had dreamed nearly the exact situation two nights ago, the only difference being that in his imagination, he scored in the 80th minute. He did not seem particularly bothered by reality’s six-minute delay.
“It was my first dream,” he said softly, “hopefully not my last.”
Brooks’s header was the dramatic coda to an evening that was a jackhammer of emotions. It opened with exuberance from the Americans after Clint Dempsey scored inside 30 seconds. That was followed by about 80 minutes of nervy, anxious nail-biting as two key players were lost to injury and Ghana pounded at the United States goal. Then came a few moments of disappointment after Ghana tied the game. And finally, there was Brooks, rising to meet Graham Zusi’s corner kick and covering the United States with the warm glow of an upset victory.
The Americans still have a considerable road to navigate to reach the knockout rounds with group games yet to play against Portugal (on Sunday) and Germany (on June 26). Any hope of advancement, though, was predicated on a positive result here. And the United States got one.
“The response after they scored was really good,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “You looked around and still felt like there was more in it.”
At the final whistle, Coach Jürgen Klinsmann, who had not hesitated to liken this game to a final in terms of importance, ran onto the field, a smile wide across his face. The Ghana players, aware of how critical 3 points here were, sank to the ground in anguish.
“The feelings are just incredible,” the American defender Matt Besler said.
It was that way from the start. Just moments after the game kicked off, Dempsey, the United States captain, saw a pass come his way and let it run, stepping over the ball with his foot before tapping it forward with the inside of his right heel. It was a stylish move, dripping with confidence. The ball now in front of him, Dempsey bore in on goal.
One Ghana player ran across him. Then another. Dempsey cut to the inside and, with a quick finish, suddenly stroked the ball past the goalkeeper and in off the post. Klinsmann and the entire United States bench erupted. In their first game of the World Cup, in a group of sharks, the Americans were leading in roughly the time it takes to mix a caipirinha. Twenty-nine seconds was all that ticked off the clock, the fifth-fastest goal in World Cup history.
“I saw that there was space,” Dempsey said, “and I just tried to hit it as hard as I could.”
As the ball settled into the back of the net, Dempsey took off running. Klinsmann threw his hands in the air. The American fans, who looked to make up half of the crowd of 39,760 at Arena das Dunas, danced in the aisles as the United States was suddenly in the lead.
But the Americans could not maintain their pace. In truth, most of the rest of the game was maddening for the United States as Ghana bossed the ball around the field. Frustration turned to sadness, too, when Jozy Altidore, one of Klinsmann’s top strikers, looked to sustain a serious leg injury. Altidore reached down and grabbed the back of his leg as he sprinted for a ball down the sideline in the 21st minute, a telltale sign of real pain. Klinsmann cradled Altidore’s head in his fingers just before Altidore was taken off on a stretcher, his World Cup participation now murky because of a strained hamstring.
“I was crushed,” Altidore said. “I knew right away I couldn’t continue. It was the worst feeling.”
Things did not improve for the Americans as the minutes passed. Ghana, which eliminated the United States in each of the past two World Cups, hammered on the Americans. Kyle Beckerman was floored by a brutal elbow to the head from Mohammed Rabiu (who was cautioned). Dempsey went down, blood pouring from his nose, after taking a shin to the face from John Boye (who got away undisciplined).
Dempsey played the rest of the game despite struggling to breathe through his nose, saying afterward that he was “coughing up blood a little bit.”
Alejandro Bedoya also looked bothered by a leg injury and so, too, did Besler, one of the two starting central defenders. With Ghana controlling possession and pushing, Klinsmann did not want to risk a gimpy defense, so he pulled Besler at halftime as a precaution. Brooks was the replacement.
The American back line held off Ghana until the 82nd minute. That was when André Ayew beat Tim Howard at the near post from close range.
Deflated as the Americans may have been, they also knew that a tie would still be a good result. Yet Brooks wanted more. And when Zusi’s penetrating corner swung in, the 6-foot-4 Brooks met the ball ferociously, blasting it down and bouncing it past Adam Kwarasey in Ghana’s goal.
Brooks sprinted toward the corner flag and collapsed, as if in a daze. Then he pounded his hands into the ground.
“If you score after just one minute,” Klinsmann said, “you think there can’t be anything better than that.”
But there was. It was something from a dream.