Don’t for a moment think a soccer star at the National Team level is made overnight.
Even if you happen to play one of the best games of your international career in one of the team’s most important matches in years – essentially a knock-out game in one of the world’s biggest tournaments – all the while helping to marshal a team playing a man down for the final 42 minutes (plus six minutes of stoppage time) in a situation where allowing even one goal could be catastrophic.
That said, in a sense one match, even one play, can serve as transformative visual evidence that the countless hours of training and games that came before have helped mold a young player into what everyone hoped he would become.
John Brooks had just that transformative match in the Copa America Centenario Group A finale on June 11 against Paraguay. In front of more than 50,000 fans at Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia, Brooks had, in every positive sense of the word, a “monster” game. He earned Budweiser Man of the Match honors for the second time in three games – an honor that is not afforded to a defender very often.
For the fans dressed in red, white and blue, every big play was met with massive cheers, and for those in the white and red vertical striped jerseys, a groan that equated to, “not that guy again!”
All those fans saw him do what a great center back does:
- Along with fellow center back Geoff Cameron, who is also having a tremendous tournament, make the center of the back line pretty much impenetrable.
- Along with Cameron, organize the USA’s defensive shape with voice and movement, a task that became more difficult when DeAndre Yedlin was sent off.
- Establish a physical presence and set a tone for dominance, and at 6-foot-4 and 172 pounds, he has the physical attributes to do just that.
- Win every single header that came his way.
- Stay locked in even when chaos ensues inside the penalty area, which it inevitably does.
- Make timely tackles and clearances that fly far from danger.
- Recover to nullify chances if there is a defensive breakdown, with no better example of this coming in the 11th minute when he found himself as the “1” in a three-on-one Paraguay break, and showed tremendous athleticism to run down Miguel Almirón and slide to block his close-range shot, keeping the match level at 0-0.
- Keep the ball, connect passes (to the tune of a 93 percent completion rate) and help establish the USA’s attacking rhythm.
USA center back John Brooks makes the imperative tackle to deny Paraguay's Miguel Almiron the chance to gain Paraguay an early lead in the teams' Copa America group finale.
Of course, he did not hold the clever Paraguayans, who were playing for their tournament lives, at bay on his own. It was a phenomenal team win for the Americans who showed grit and determination and did not buckle after Yedlin’s ejection. Clint Dempsey, who as head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said post-game, “did what Clint does,” bagged the 51st goal of his international career in the 27th minute.
The victory, combined with Costa Rica’s surprising 3-2 victory against Colombia, gave the USA the Group A title and a trip to Seattle for the Copa America Quarterfinal on June 16.
As every coach knows, having a solid defense and goalkeeper – Brad Guzan was stellar in the U.S. net and has yet to give up a goal from the run of play in this tournament – will keep you in almost every match. After the game, Klinsmann was extremely pleased with the play of the 23-year-old Brooks.
"I think John Brooks, with a performance like this, I guess all of Europe is watching that," Klinsmann said following the match. "This is a big statement what he did tonight."
Brooks was one of the youngest players on the 2014 World Cup team and of course famously scored one of the most important goals in U.S. history on a towering header in the 86th minute of the USA’s opener against Ghana, which proved to be the game-winner in the 2-1 victory. It was just his fifth cap – he’s now earned a total of 24 – and while he would not play again in the World Cup, his play in the Centenario has shown once again that his roster spot in Brazil was an excellent investment in the future of the U.S. program.
“Everybody was ready to battle for the ball and give everything,” said Brooks. “We did an outstanding job blocking crosses and clearing balls played into the box.”
It’s been an exciting year for Brooks. After some struggles with consistency early in his club career – certainly not uncommon for young players playing in one of the world’s top leagues – he had an excellent year for Hertha Berlin, playing in 23 matches as his hometown club finished in a highly respectable seventh place, just five points out of fourth. In the summer of 2016, Brooks seems to be coming into his own for both club and country.
But for Brooks, it’s the short-term goals that make the long-term ones possible.
“We showed a great mentality,” he said. “Everybody was hungry for second balls, for tackles. We can be very proud. Between the first game and now you see everyone stepping up and the confidence growing.”