NATAL, Brazil – This time, Clint Dempsey didn't dance. It wasn't time for that. Not even close.
In fact, the U.S. captain's goal after exactly 30 seconds against Ghana turned out to be just the opening salvo in a wild, unpredictable, and intense 2-1 U.S. victory that simultaneously set records, vanquished past demons, and recalled legendary moments from the nation's soccer past.
- Still Surreal: The shock of scoring against Ghana has not worn off for John Brooks
John Brooks, on as a halftime substitute after Matt Besler was removed from the game with hamstring tightness, bookended the madness with an 86th minute winner. Brooks' celebration started with pure jubilation and genuine shock, until the moment overtook the 21-year-old and he sank face-down to the turf, his hands over his head, teammates surrounding him in a joyous pile. It was the first goal scored by a substitute in the United States’ Word Cup history.
“I thanked God for the great moment,” Brooks said. “I dreamed that I scored in the 80th minute and we won the game. It’s unbelievable.”
Brooks might have been the only one in the stadium to have seen his goal coming – even if many of them were U.S. fans. The noise in Natal’s Arena das Dunas continually soared throughout the evening, growing from a respectable din when players entered the field for warm-ups, to a powerful, robust bravado in the singing of the Star-Spangled Banner, to outright delirium in the aftermath of Brooks’ goal. Not since 2006, when the U.S. met Italy in Kaiserslautern, Germany, near an American armed forces base had they enjoyed this kind of an advantage in the stands.
They didn’t have to wait long to have something to cheer for. Dempsey’s goal came in a flash, with the U.S. captain receiving the ball on the edge of the box off service from Jermaine Jones. Dempsey skimmed past Ghana defender John Boye, found himself all alone in the box, and clipped a far-post strike that bounced its way past the outstretched arms of Ghana goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, pinged off the post, and just like that the fastest goal in the U.S.’s World Cup history (and 5th-fastest ever in a FIFA World Cup) settled itself over the line and the U.S. went up 1-0.
“If you score after a minute, you think you can’t have anything better than that,” Jurgen Klinsmann said after the game. “But maybe overall it wasn’t so good to us because then we kind of sat back a little too much instead of taking the game to them.”
Dempsey knew all about this. In 2006, the Texan made his first major mark on the international stage with an opening goal against Ghana in a World Cup. This one came in the 43rd minute of the teams’ final group stage game. Then, as he did on Monday, Dempsey pointed to the sky with both fingers, pumped his fists, screamed and yelled for the world to hear as he sprinted toward the left corner flag.
In 2006, Dempsey stopped there, and danced a jig. Ghana came back and won that day, contributing to the U.S.’s elimination for the first of what would eventually be two consecutive World Cups.
On Monday, Dempsey stopped, turned around, and got back to business. There ended up being a lot of it to take care of.
After a month’s worth of training sessions and three warm-up games, the United States faced their first big injury challenge on the world’s biggest stage. Jozy Altidore, Dempsey’s partner up top, was doing nothing out of the ordinary when chasing down a Michael Bradley long ball in the 23rd minute. All the same, the forward pulled up under almost no duress, falling to the ground and clutching his left hamstring. As was immediately apparent, Altidore had to be substituted, with Aron Jóhannsson coming on in his place.
“My heart goes out to him,” Dempsey said. “You could see the tears in his eyes going back to the locker room, so we wish him a speedy recovery. He’s a big player for us, and it hurts to have him go out of the game.”
There would be more physical obstacles to overcome, but the next few came from the Ghanaians. Mohammed Rabiu hit World Cup debutant Kyle Beckerman in the face with a flying arm, and received a yellow card. Jones and Sulley Muntari became entangled after a pair of rough challenges.
Then, in a bizarre and more painful twist, Dempsey suffered a fractured nose thanks to the flailing leg of Boye. Upon landing, Dempsey firmly pinched his now-bloodied bridge and adjusted it back into place. Refusing a stretcher, U.S. trainers tended to him as he walked toward the sideline. One minute and a few tissues later, Dempsey returned to the field – a moment straight from the book of former U.S. striker Brian McBride, who scored key goals throughout the U.S.’s 2002 World Cup run and left no shortage of U.S. games with a variety of facial injuries.
“I was coughing up blood a little bit, but I felt fine,” Dempsey said. “I went on as well as I could, I just had trouble breathing.”
In the second half, things became even more difficult. Matt Besler left the game with tightness in his hamstring, with Brooks replacing him. The U.S. appeared discombobulated in the final third, and Ghana’s attacks became more and more frequent.
“I was screaming at them on the sideline like crazy to keep the line high,” Klinsmann said. “We had problems controlling it and getting passes connected.”
In the 82nd minute, Ghana’s pressure resulted in an equalizer, with Andre Ayew finishing off a nifty backheel by Asamoah Gyan. Then the United States went back to work.
“The response after they got to 1-1 was really positive,” midfielder Michael Bradley said. “Body language, everything was exactly what you want.”
On a day when the U.S. traded blows with Ghana in a physical back-and-forth, it was fitting two of the team's pairs of fresh legs would connect on the winner. Graham Zusi's lofted corner kick hung in the air just as long as it needed to, and the six-foot-four Brooks met it with assurance, headed it downwards and placed it right where Kwarasey couldn't get to it.
The U.S. celebrated wildly in the stands and on the field, before seeing out the remaining minutes without further incident. After the whistle, the players thanked the boisterous fan contingent who had traveled to Natal and headed back to the locker room where they were greeted by Jozy Altidore, injured in the first half, with a limp and a hug. Shortly thereafter the team was treated to a visit by Vice President Joe Biden, who passed on his congratulations and reiterated the support of the nation for the squad competing at the tournament in Brazil.
“Another win in dramatic fashion, huh?” Altidore quipped to reporters after the match.
I got a call that every soccer player dreams of a few days after our last game of the NWSL season.
My coach at the Western New York Flash, Paul Riley, had come up to me a couple of days before that and told me that Jill Ellis might bring me into National Team camp. I was really excited and anxious then, but when I got the call from Tim Ryder, the WNT General Manager, I was sitting in my living room, doing some packing and doing some phone interviews, so it caught me a bit off-guard.
I was trying to act very cool, but on the inside I was so excited. In fact, it’s highly likely that I didn’t sound cool at all.
He told me that I was invited into the training camp for the two games against Switzerland in Utah and Minnesota, but that I had to keep it under wraps until U.S. Soccer officially announced the roster. Of course, I immediately called my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend but I told them that WE ALL needed to keep it a secret.
The roster was announced a week later after we’d won the semifinal against Portland and before the NWSL Championship. I’m not the most talkative person, but it was hard keeping that secret for a week!
Before coming to Utah, I’d only been in a few youth camps with the Under-23s, and all those girls had known each other for a long time. Everyone was nice, but I remember feeling that they were a bit standoffish until you proved yourself, so that’s what I was expecting from the senior group, except times ten. These players are professionals, Olympic champions, World Cup champions and they have tremendous confidence in the environment.
I was a bit nervous about how to fit in.
Williams helped lead the WNY Flash to the club's first NWSL title as the league MVP and Golden Boot winner.
Soccer-wise, coming off the NWSL season, I felt fresh and confident, but I knew it was going to be hard. Coming into a National Team camp any time is hard, and I knew doing it for the first time was going to be a big challenge.
I was definitely nervous about the soccer.
Naturally, the veterans gravitate towards the veterans and the newbies gravitate towards the newbies, but there were 11 uncapped players going in so I knew I wasn’t going to be by myself. Of course, I also knew my Western New York teammates Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, so that was a bit more comforting.
What I didn’t expect was that the veterans would be so welcoming, on and off the field. When you made a mistake, they said “try this instead” and when you did something well, they would commend you for it. That support really made training even more fun. I learned a lot and every practice was awesome.
That said, training was intense. Everyone was so excited to get into camp that the first couple of days it was like a bunch of mad women running around. As Arin Gilliland said to a reporter, “WNT training is like the NWSL, on three cups of coffee.” It’s probably like five cups.
And it was not just the physical speed; the speed of thought is also so heightened. Playing in New York, sometimes I feel like I can get away with receiving the ball and then decide what to do with it. With the National Team, you have to have like three different options in your mind even before you receive the ball. I knew I needed to improve on that.
We got tons of information from the coaches. Some of the stuff you already know, but the language and the verbiage is different so you have to learn that. You have to learn how they want you to play in a particular formation, you have to learn your assignments on set plays and you have to learn it quickly. Fortunately, everyone is open to questions.
I asked Becky (Sauerbrunn) and Christen (Press) a million questions and my roommate Alyssa (Naeher) probably two million. I am sure she was thinking, “Man, this girl sure asks a lot of questions.” But I figured better to ask than not to ask and look like I have no idea what I’m doing, which I’m sure was still the case some of the time.
For me, the first few days were challenging. You’re trying to get a feel for all the players, their tendencies and how they like to play. Mentally, I think I was putting more pressure on myself that I needed to.
On the third day, I found out I would be a sub for the game. I told myself, “Lynn, stop being such a psycho, stopping being so chaotic, you know how to play soccer,” and I settled in a bit.
I thought I had a good practice the day before the game in Utah and then the day came and I told myself I needed to play even better in the game. After the game, I told myself I needed to play even better in the next practice. Of course, you can’t do that every day, but you have to challenge yourself and that’s the kind of attitude you have to have.Read more