Photo by John Todd/ISIphotos.com
By FRANCO PANIZO
NATAL, Brazil — John Brooks could not have picked a better time to score his first international goal.
Brooks lifted the U.S. Men’s National Team to a memorable and dramatic 2-1 win over Ghana in their intense Group G opener at Arena das Dunas on Monday night, scoring off a corner kick from Graham Zusi in the 86th minute. The goal came four minutes after Ghana had negated a first-minute strike from Clint Dempsey and saw the U.S. defeat the Black Stars for the first time in three World Cup attempts.
The Americans jumped out to a 1-0 lead just 30 seconds into the match played in humid and dry conditions when Clint Dempsey finished a low effort, but the next 80 minutes consisted mostly of Ghana dominating possession and creating and wasting chances. When Andre Ayew finally converted in the 82nd minute, Ghana looked like it might pull out a late victory.
That mood changed when Brooks headed home a Zusi corner kick to give the Americans the lead for good and put them in second place of Group G behind Germany.
“I was still convinced we (were) going to win this game even after the equalizer,” said U.S. head coach Jurgen Klinsmann. “I had the feeling that another two, three opportunities will come, that we just need to use one of those opportunities, which happened. Definitely the start that we wanted, they worked hard for it and it’s just a good feeling to have those first three points.”
While the Americans got the three points they were so adamant about in the run-up to the physical match played in front of 39,760 fans, it came at a price. Both Jozy Altidore and Matt Besler, who Brooks replaced at halftime, left the game with hamstring issues.
Altidore suffered a non-contact left hamstring strain midway through the first half that forced him to be stretchered off, and Besler was taken off due to hamstring tightness in his right leg.
“We rely a lot on Jozy. That’s no secret,” said midfielder Michael Bradley. “To lose him at that point in the game is difficult. Obviously then having to make a second change right away with Matt at halftime means that we’re playing 45 more minutes and have one sub. In this heat and this humidity, you’re just kind of waiting to see how that goes.”
The U.S. got off to a dream start in the match, scoring 30 seconds into the affair to record the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history.
DaMarcus Beasley passed a ball to Jermaine Jones, who flicked it into the path of Dempsey. The U.S. captain then dribbled into the penalty area and fired a low shot that caromed off the far post and in. The strike made Dempsey the first American to score in three World Cups.
“I was able to cut back and see if there was space,” said Dempsey. “I just tried to hit it far post and it went in.”
Ghana responded by trying to attack down the flanks, especially on the left side against veteran Beasley. But goalkeeper Tim Howard and the U.S. centerbacks were up for the task against the bevy of crosses that were whipped in.
“We made a point not to let them play through the middle and not to let them play over the top,” said Besler. “At some point, you’re going to have to pick areas that you give a good team the ball and we made the decision that the wide areas were going to be kind of be what we gave up. I think we defended those wide areas well tonight.”
The U.S. struggled to maintain possession for much of the opening 45 minutes, and they lost Altidore to a left hamstring injury in the 21st minute. Bradley played a ball over the top to Altidore as the Americans tried to hit on a counter, and the veteran forward went down in a heap of pain. Aron Johannsson replaced him two minutes later.
Ghana had a numerous chances to pull level, but Asamoah Gyan was unable to convert any of his looks. He was denied spectacularly by Howard in the 32nd minute and the Ghana striker headed high six minutes later.
“In some ways, getting the goal so early almost throws the game into a tailspin,” said Bradley. “It’s natural then at that point that we start to get drawn back a little bit and obviously then they start to be able to control a little bit of the game.”
The second half also saw Ghana hog possession, but it was more dangerous in the attacking third than it had been in the opening 45 minutes.
Midway through the second half, Sulley Muntari shot just wide past an outstretched Howard and Gyan nodded a chance high seconds later.
The Ghanaians got their reward when Ayew rifled a low shot to the near post to pull Ghana level, but Brooks came to the U.S.’s rescue and headed home a late corner to give the U.S. a dramatic win.
“It’s a special moment for the boy,” said Klinsmann. “He did well.”
The Americans will now gear up for their next match on June 22 and will look to build on a crucial win when they take on Cristiano Ronaldo and a Portugal team that needs a win after suffering an embarrassing 4-0 defeat to Germany earlier on Monday. The match will be played at Arena Amazonia in Manaus.