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.