In the so-called Group of Death, the United States might just have a shot at life. Thanks in part to an unlikely hero.
Substitute John Brooks, who was making his debut in an official FIFA tournament, scored a late winner to give the U.S. a priceless 2-1 victory over Ghana on Monday at the Estadio das Dunas in Natal, Brazil, in both teams' 2014 FIFA World Cup opener. With the win, the U.S. got revenge for a pair of losses to the Black Stars in back-to-back World Cups and set themselves up to have a realistic chance of qualifying for the knockout stages from a difficult Group G.
Captain Clint Dempsey had given the U.S. the lead in the first minute with the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history, but Ghana tied the match in the 82nd minute through Andre Ayew. With the U.S. under intense pressure not to allow a second Ghana goal, Brooks popped up with the winner, a header from a corner, four minutes from full time.
And what an important win it could prove to be.
In each of the past two World Cups, the U.S. was eliminated by Ghana, first in the 2006 group stage, and then in 2010's round of 16. By beating their nemesis, the Americans not only gained revenge, they also set themselves up to potentially advance from a difficult Group G.
Monday's other Group G match saw Germany defeat Portugal 4-0, meaning the U.S. now sits atop the group alongside Klinsmann's home country. What's more, the Americans could knock out Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal when the two teams meet Sunday in Manaus.
They may have to do it without Jozy Altidore, though, after the striker left Monday's match in the first half after suffering a hamstring injury. Altidore, who scored twice in the U.S.' final warmup match against Turkey, was replaced by Aron Johannsson. In addition, Chris Wondolowski is another option for the Americans if Altidore is unable to play again.
Ghana will play Germany in Fortaleza on Saturday, and despite dominating large parts of the match against the U.S., the Black Stars now find themselves in a difficult situation. If the U.S. wins or draws against Portugal, the Africans would need to avoid a loss to remain in contention for the knockout stages.
For all the drama at the end of Monday's match, the beginning was perhaps just as exciting. The U.S. had made a habit of falling behind early in matches during the previous World Cup, so it was a pleasant change for Klinsmann's side to take precisely the opposite approach this time around.
In the first minute, Dempsey started a move along the touchline down the Americans' left flank. After receiving the ball back from Jermaine Jones, the U.S. captain cut inside John Boye and deposited a low shot into the net off the inside of the far post.
The goal was officially timed at 29 seconds, making it the fifth-fastest in World Cup history, per ESPN Stats and Info.
The U.S. suddenly had the lead against its old nemesis, and Klinsmann's side nearly scored another in the 18th minute. Alejandro Bedoya rolled a cross from the right side into the middle for Altidore, whose shot was blocked.
It turned out to be Altidore's final contribution on the night—and possibly the World Cup. The striker was carried off the pitch on a stretcher in the 23rd minute after pulling up with a hamstring injury while chasing a long ball in Ghana's half.
At the other end, Ghana went to work trying to pick apart the U.S. defense. Christian Atsu curled a shot off target in the 29th minute, and Asamoah Gyan forced Tim Howard into a save with a stinging drive three minutes later.
The U.S. had another injury scare in the 33rd minute, as Dempsey left the pitch momentarily with a bloodied nose. Replays showed that Boye's leg inadvertently struck Dempsey's face as the two contested a 50-50 ball.
Ghana had another chance just before halftime, but Jordan Ayew mis-kicked his attempted shot from the middle of the box, allowing the U.S. to carry a 1-0 lead into the break.
U.S. defender Matt Besler left the match at halftime, replaced by John Brooks, and as the second half began, Ghana turned up the pressure. Sulley Muntari flashed a long-distance shot high and wide, and Gyan headed off target one minute later.
The Africans came even closer in the 59th minute, when Howard scrambled across his line to tip a Gyan header around the post. Geoff Cameron then deflected another Gyan shot off target, and Howard saved Kwadwo Asamoah's dipping drive from long distance.
Just when it looked like it wasn't Ghana's night, the Africans tied the score. The goal came via a familiar source, with Gyan—whose goal eliminated the U.S. in 2010—setting up Ayew with a clever heel flick. After controlling the pass, Ayew finished deftly with the outside of his left foot to tie the game at 1-1.
The Americans were reeling, but Klinsmann's substitutes still had a part to play. In the 86th minute, Zusi, who replaced Alejandro Bedoya nine minutes earlier, curled in a corner from the right side. Brooks, who came on for Besler at halftime, rose highest to power in his header for the winning goal.
With that, the U.S. had three points and a piece of revenge against an old tormentor. While it probably didn't happen exactly how the Americans dreamed, the win might just make the Group of Death a bit less lethal.
|Ghana Player Ratings|
|Adam Larsen Kwarasey||6||6|
|Kevin-Prince Boateng (for J. Ayew, 59')||N/A||6|
|Michael Essien (for Rabiu, 71')||N/A||5|
|Albert Adomah (for Atsu, 78')||N/A||5|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
|USA Player Ratings|
|Aron Johannsson (for Altidore, 23')||5||5|
|John Brooks (for Besler, 46')||N/A||8|
|Graham Zusi (for Bedoya, 77')||N/A||7|
|Ratings by B/R UK|
Speaking to BBC Sport, Klinsmann said he knew the U.S. would have chances to win the match, even after giving up the tying goal. He said:
I said to the bench a few minutes before our winner 'We are going to get some chances—we need to push and grind it out.' We trained over and over on set pieces and it was well deserved.
We have a great spirit and fight until the last minute. It was a grind but it was a wonderful one at the end of the day.
There is stuff we need to improve. We had problems with keeping the ball.
Ghana coach James Kwesi Appiah lamented his team's missed chances, telling FIFA.com:
All I can say is that it was a very tough game and when you play at this high level any little mistake can cost you dearly. We had a lot of the ball and created a lot of chances, but we didn’t make the most of our chances, but USA took theirs. It’s not going to be easy to qualify for the group, but we’ll give everything to do just that. We’re going to have to play well against Germany and I know we’ll give them a good game.
Also speaking to FIFA.com, Dempsey said he thinks he sustained a broken nose but did not think about leaving the match. He added that the result had to do with his team's "character," saying:
We got the goal the goal early in the game and that caused us to be a little bit more defensive. I thought Ghana played really well, but I thought that we didn’t help ourselves at times in terms of keeping possession. When they got the equaliser, I thought that we might get a point out of the game, but credit to our team, we kept fighting and we got the goal. We didn’t play our best, but we ground out the result.
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