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.
The U.S. Men’s National Team rode a shock opening win against fourth-ranked Portugal, a draw against the host Korea Republic and a little help from the goalposts to advance to the Round of 16 at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Finishing second in the group meant that the MNT would have less than three full days rest to turn around and face regional rivals Mexico in the highest stakes match the two nations had ever played. With little time to prepare, in some respects the U.S. was lucky to have drawn the team with which it was most familiar.
Despite the U.S. having won four of the previous five meetings, according to U.S. captain Claudio Reyna, when the team arrived at Jeonju World Cup Stadium that June afternoon, there wasn’t much respect shown from the opposition side.
“Before the game we walked out and we were walking around the field. We had this focus and concentration as a team as you do preparing for any game,” the former team captain told ussoccer.com. “I was with Eddie Lewis, Frankie Hejduk, Gregg Berhalter and Earnie Stewart and we were ready to go – we were foaming at the mouth for this game. We looked over and the Mexicans were laughing, joking and looking at us…That was it.”
Reyna called the team over to quickly finish their pre-game pitch inspection and head back into the locker room.
“We sort of wanted the game to start, we were so ready to go,” he continued. “Back in the locker room, I remember saying, ‘These guys are laughing at us. They think they’re going to beat us easily.’”
Mexico had done efficient work to get to that point. Having finished with seven points atop a group that featured Italy, Croatia and Ecuador, El Tri’s run to the Round of 16 had the side brimming with self-assurance ahead of the match.
“They were feeling confident, but the lack of respect they showed was clear – you never do that,” said Reyna. “I would never do that in my career, even if I felt really comfortable about beating an opponent. That you’d be giggling, laughing and joking at the opponent. It was pretty clear that it was directed at us and at some of our players, and obviously we play them all the time so there’s that rivalry.”
“I remember saying, ‘We’re not losing this game guys.’ Everyone went around and you could feel it all the way through that we couldn’t wait to get out there.”
Reyna gets past Ramon Morales in the most famous "Dos a Cero" in Men's National Team history.
Injuries and suspensions limited the U.S. options, and Bruce Arena used the uncertainty to confound the Mexicans by deploying a 3-5-2 formation for the match. The switch saw Reyna move from his regular central midfield position to the right flank, with the move paying off almost immediately. Following an eighth minute foul in the Mexico half, Brian McBride quickly restarted as he saw Reyna pushing up the flank. The U.S. captain beat two defenders to the end line before centering for Josh Wolff, whose deft touch teed up McBride for a clinical finish and an equally gratifying goal celebration.
The goal set an early tone and played perfectly into Arena’s game plan, allowing the U.S. to sit in and pick its moments to counter against an increasingly frustrated Mexican side. Landon Donovan’s second- half header off an Eddie Lewis cross helped ice the game, giving the MNT its first ever World Cup knockout round win and a quarterfinal date with Germany.
“It was just a great team performance. To beat them 2-0, eliminate them and afterwards realize this was a big deal back in the States,” Reyna said.
The win raised the profile of the Men’s National Team more than any other since the 1994 FIFA World Cup, but in an age before social media, Reyna admitted the players didn’t realize how big an impact the victory had made.
“We didn’t know how huge it was at home,” he said. “We were in Korea and we knew it was sort of growing in momentum. I remember seeing some of the news clips from Mexico City where there were people in plazas and squares crying over the result – that felt good.”
U.S. supporters celebrate during the MNT's 2-0 win against Mexico at the 2002 FIFA World Cup.
Though the momentum was already building towards U.S. domination of the rivalry, the World Cup win tipped the scales. Since 2000, the MNT has held a 13-6-5 advantage against El Tri.
“From that moment on, it continued to be a real domination of Mexico,” Reyna said. “We went on and beat them all the time. That was the point where we felt we were no longer playing behind them, that we were better than them.”
“It was one big coming out party on the biggest stage.”Read more