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.
Ever wondered what a day in the life of a U.S. Women’s National Team player is like? We followed WNT goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris to get an inside look at a day inside WNT training camp, a day that included a weight session and on-field practice.
After a grabbing a quick coffee, the busy day starts early for Harris and the WNT, as they are headed to a weight lifting, the first of two trainings sessions that day.
“The bus ride is always total shenanigans with the people I sit around with. Usually that group is Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe and Ali Krieger. It’s just fun and good vibes heading into our workout.”
First stop of the day: weightlifting. The WNT usually spends about 90 minutes at the gym, and each player has a specialized workout sheet that is tailored to their needs.
“At lifting I usually spend time on my shoulders and continue to strengthen my back; things I need as goalkeeper. Every day I hit the ground, so I have to make sure my arms are strong. Shoulder strength and shoulder stability are key to make sure my arms are moving well and to prevent any injuries.”
As the team exits the gym, several fans await them by the bus and most players, including Harris, stop to sign a few autographs and pose for a few selfies.
“It’s always just really cool to stop and have a chat with the younger generation after or before training sessions. They’re just awesome.”
“Our van leaves the hotel about 45 minutes before the field players whenever we go to the training. I always have a pre-training and pre-game routine of taping my fingers and hands. It’s a personal preference and to be honest, I’ve always done it. Being at training earlier helps us get some good stretching in, stay focused and it allows us to nail down techniques and work individually and collectively as a small group before we jump in with everyone else.”
For afternoon training, Harris, along with Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell, as well as goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, all pile into a team van and head to training earlier than the field players to spend some time working on their technique and specific areas before the rest of the team arrives.
“Alyssa and I have very good communication and no one has a better view or can critique one another better than each other. If we see something we tell each other and help each other out.”
After training, the players all cool down, chat with each other, hydrate and reflect on the session they just completed.
“We tend to immediately grab our protein shakes. We talk about the day, what we saw on the field, what we can fix, what wasn’t good, what was good and we just overall critique the game in every way we can to become better.”
“Once we’re back in the hotel, it’s all about treatment. Like true professionals, we must take care of our bodies and be responsible to get the treatment we need. Our bodies take a beating from all the impact at training so we take care of it to do it all over again the day after.”