In the 2-1 victory over Ghana, United States manager Jurgen Klinsmann's hand was forced earlier than he wanted, but two of his three substitutions helped propel the Yanks to a full three points at the Arena das Dunas in Natal.
The Yanks were put into panic mode prematurely when Jozy Altidore pulled up with a strained hamstring in the 23rd minute. The forward that provides so many dimensions to the American attack could not continue, which meant Klinsmann had to bring on his second-best option at forward in Aron Johannsson.
#USMNT injury report: Altidore with a strained left hamstring.— U.S. Soccer (@ussoccer) June 16, 2014
The circumstances against Ghana—the former Achilles' heel of the United States at the World Cup—worsened when center-back Matt Besler started grabbing at his hamstring toward the end of the first half.
Besler was not deemed fit enough to continue on after the half-time whistle, which spurred another early decision by Klinsmann.
The Sporting Kansas City player was replaced by John Brooks, one of the five German-Americans on the roster, instead of Omar Gonzalez, who started most of the games during the qualification process alongside Besler.
Klinsmann: I chose Brooks as sub because he's a left CB. Would have chosen Gonzalez if right CB Cameron had been hurt.— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 17, 2014
For most of the second half, Klinsmann's decision-making skills were not looking good, as Johannson failed to keep any type of attack going up front, while Ghana pummeled crosses and shots at the American defense.
This came as a bit of a shock given Johannsson's ability to come off the bench against Panama and Azerbaijan to score. The one big difference between Monday's game and those appearances was the amount of time he spent on the field.
On both occasions, Johannsson entered in the 62nd minute and ended up scoring a goal late in the match. It took 19 minutes against Azerbaijan for the Alabama-born forward to score, while it took him until the final moments of the Panama match to score a blistering goal that ended the World Cup dream of Panama.
Johannsson, like any substitute, has shown that he needs some time before he warms up and makes an impact, but with plenty of time under his belt Monday, he failed to make any type of impact in a game that was waiting for him to arrive.
Brooks did have a few shaky moments during his first few minutes on the pitch, but just like his appearance in the second half against Turkey on June 1, he settled into his position and proved why Klinsmann selected him over veteran Clarence Goodson for the 23-man squad.
While Brooks and the entire defensive unit were holding on to the one-goal lead, Klinsmann was busy figuring out his final crucial move of the match.
He made that call in the 77th minute by replacing Alejandro Bedoya with Graham Zusi, a move that was supposed to provide a spark in the lifeless attack led by Johansson and bloodied captain Clint Dempsey.
Dempsey—and Bedoya while he was on the pitch—was forced to move further back and defend the incoming pressure from the Black Stars.
Bedoya was clearly out of gas, but instead of throwing a defensive-minded player on the field to seal up what was a 1-0 lead at the time, Klinsmann kept with his bold, attacking mindset and brought on Zusi.
Five minutes after Zusi entered, the back line was finally breached, but the resilient spirit of the Americans was not, and just four minutes after the 82nd-minute goal by Andre Ayew, a corner kick was earned.
The corner kick brought about the one chance the Americans needed, and just as luck would have it, Zusi fired in the corner that found the head of Brooks, who bounced the ball into the back of the net for his first international goal.
Earning that one chance was what Klinsmann had hoped for by bringing Zusi on, but it still did not solve his dilemma moving ahead at the forward position.
We don't know how bad the Altidore injury really is, and even if it is a strain, it would be hard to see him back in the starting 11 against Portugal in Manaus on Sunday.
That leaves Klinsmann with another chance to bring his Midas-like touch to the lineup, but this time it has to be done before the game begins.
Johannsson proved Monday that he is not the answer to replacing the physical style that Altidore brings to the table, but neither is Chris Wondolowski, who is the other forward on the roster.
In an ideal situation, Klinsmann would be able to call upon Eddie Johnson or Terrence Boyd, but neither player made the final roster of 23, which means there is no direct replacement for Altidore on the bench.
Dempsey on Altidore's injury: "You could see the tears in his eyes going back to the locker room...Other players have to step up now."— Grant Wahl (@GrantWahl) June 17, 2014
This is where the selection process begins to become a major topic of discussion because Johannsson does have the track record of scoring goals behind him from his club season at AZ Alkmaar, but he needs an opportunity to strike, which is something he never received against Ghana.
Portugal will be without Pepe at center-back due to suspension, and possibly Fabio Coentrao due to an injury, which helps soften the loss of Altidore a bit, but someone has to be up to task, just like Zusi and Brooks were on the set piece in the 86th minute Monday.
Who that player is may not be decided until Sunday, but based on the past decision-making skills of Klinsmann, fans of the Yanks can have faith that their manager will make the right call to hand the Stars and Stripes an attacking impetus in a game that is certainly there for the taking.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90.