Imagine if I told you before this match that America’s best pure striker and main offensive target would leave with a leg injury 20 minutes in. And that one of our best centerbacks would also be forced out with an injury at halftime. And that our most dangerous player would have his nose broken and not be able to breathe well out of it for the rest of the hot, humid game. And that our all-around best player would turn in a horrible performance. And that our passing style would for the most part resemble that of a co-ed adult league team, lower intermediate division.
Knowing all that, you’d probably be OK with a 2-1 win against the best team in Africa in one of the most important matches in United States World Cup history, right?
Things started out more auspiciously. Before you could even settle into your bar stool or Pottery Barn sectional, Clint Dempsey had taken a one touch lay off from Jermaine Jones, cut the ball across Ghana defender John Boye, and buried it with his left foot low and hard off the post to put the Americans up 1-0. It was the fastest goal in American World Cup history, and the fifth fastest of all time (Hakan Sukur of Turkey scored the fastest, 11 seconds into their match against South Korea in 2002). Americans everywhere celebrated by lighting flares, or mostly through the use of caps lock on social media. Best of all was Jurgen’s celebration, a charming move in which he looked like he was momentarily electrocuted by a cattle prod of happiness before returning to Teutonic reserve. All was seemingly right in the world.
And then American supporters realized we still had to play 89 more minutes against a very good Ghanaian team, and that the referee was not just going to call the game on account of our excessive excitement. And bit by bit the American foundation started to crack. First up came the tragic injury to striker Jozy Altidore, who pulled up lame in the 21st minute while running down a ball. The pained look on his face and the somber tones from announcer Ian Darke told the story. The speculation at this point is that he’s at least done through the opening round. Then John Boye decided to get even with Clint Dempsey, and crane-kicked him in the face while they battled for a ball in the air, likely breaking his nose, and more importantly, hobbling the breathing of one of our workhorse players in humid, debilitating conditions. Then centerback Matt Besler was forced off at halftime by a twitchy hamstring, replaced by 21-year-old German import John Brooks, who many—including me, in my match preview—believed would spend this World Cup writing in his dream diary and SnapChatting.
Throughout this stretch, Ghana dominated possession, sweeping up sloppy American passes, outrunning us to balls in corners, and generally outworking everyone except Jermaine Jones (who might’ve slide tackled everyone on the pitch), Kyle Beckerman (who is my favorite USMNT player, despite looking like he sells hemp beanbags outside of String Cheese Incident shows), and Geoff Cameron (who looks like the well-coiffed bad guy in every '80s teen film). Michael Bradley, our playmaker and an exceptional box-to-box defender in his own right, looked out of sorts, turning the ball over on passes he usually completes hundreds of times during a game and mistiming his normally sniper-like long balls.
“Doesn’t it seem like we’re playing with a lot less players,” my friend Caroline asked as we watched, and it was true: too frequently, it seemed like the Black Stars were running some sort of 6 v. 4 offensive drills that started at half field. But somehow the defense and Tim Howard Alamo’d—right up until the 82nd minute, when Andre Ayew took a superb back heel from Gyan and snapped off a shot with the outside of his left foot from close range. It was a beautiful goal, and Ghana deserved it. Suddenly it seemed like the U.S. would be lucky to get out of this game with a point at all.
And then John Brooks happened. In the 86th minute, sub Graham Zusi played an outswinging curling corner a few yards off the six-yard box, just over the top of Cameron’s head, and Brooks—tall, improbable, shaky, young John Brooks—did exactly what they tell you at header camp: hit the ball down and hard, and good things will happen. His goal was the first in history by an American sub. As it went in, Taylor Twellman let out a guttural yell in the broadcast booth. “He couldn’t even have dreamt that,” said Ian Darke, as the world watched Brooks celebration, which actually looked more like he was just finding a safe place to weep.
The next nine minutes went by in what felt like just under three years, but then it was all over. The USA, despite playing nervous, error-prone, injury-riddled soccer, were suddenly atop Group G with Germany.
Portugal—trashed earlier in the day 4-0 by Ze Germans and down two of their own starting line, one to injury, the other to mental infirmness—are next. In the upcoming days there will be much talk of Ronaldo, the Apollo of the Soccer Gods, and whether we can contain his handsome prowess. There will be questions about who starts up top alongside Clint Dempsey, whether Klinsmann sticks with Icelandic striker Aron Johannsson or pulls in master poacher Chris Wondolowski. And there will be questions about the backline and Matt Besler’s health. But last night we had John Brooks, and that was enough.
Kevin Alexander, the executive editor of Thrillist, writes about soccer for Esquire.com.