In the closing moments of the thrilling, heart-pumping and gut-wrenching 2-1 victory over Ghana, Ian Darke of ESPN put the performance of the United States ever-so eloquently.
"There are some heroes out there," Darke stated, "in red shirts tonight."
Indeed there were heroes, some as unlikely as one might possibly imagine.
John Brooks, installed at halftime by Jurgen Klinsmann after an injury to starting center back Matt Besler necessitated the change, scored the game-winning goal off a set-piece header in the 86th minute, helping the United States survive an impossible test put forth by Ghana, the elements and the gods of the game.
(Okay, that may have been a little over the top there, but go with me on this. The Americans just won a dramatic match they really had no business winning. This is going to be a glorious recitation of events.)
Ghana was stronger than the United States. The Black Stars were faster too. Most certainly the Ghanaians had greater control of both the ball and the pace of the game.
If it wasn't for a first-minute tally by Clint Dempsey—who scored one of the fastest goals in World Cup history with a dandy bit of skill to elude multiple defenders in the box and bury a shot off the far post and into the net—it would be safe to say Ghana dominated the entire match.
Ghana held 59 percent of the possession in the match to just 41 for the Red, White and Blue. Ghana completed 445 passes to just 283 for the turnover-prone Yanks. Per the official FIFA match stats, Ghana had 65 dangerous attacks to just 22 for the United States, including 21 attempts at the goal to just eight for Klinsmann's side.
It was a game of flat-out survival for the United States. It was, in some ways, the toughest test it will face in the group stage, if not in terms of opponent skill, then certainly in terms of circumstance.
A lot of things happened to the United States during those 90 minutes and for more than 80 of them—after Dempsey's goal and right up until the corner kick that led to Brooks' tally—there wasn't anything good. And yet, the U.S. found a way to survive.
When Jozy Altidore went down in the 23rd minute with a non-contact strain of his hamstring, the United States had no choice but to persist. Aron Johannsson was installed as Altidore's replacement up top, and while the young striker didn't have a chance to do much in the offensive zone during his time on the field, his work rate at the end of the game helped secure the victory.
Altidore wasn't the only one who suffered an injury for the United States. Whether it was the temperature or humidity or the team's preparation or a Ghanaian witch doctor or just traditional soccer god-bestowed bad luck, injuries plagued the USMNT all night.
With just a handful of minutes to go in the first half, Besler pulled up lame too, staying on the field after clutching his hamstring. Brooks was put in at the break and not only scored the game-winner, but played incredibly well given the intense amount of pressure he was put under the entire second half.
The injuries weren't limited to just Altidore and Besler, either. Dempsey took a boot to the face and needed his nose to get packed during the match. He persevered, telling reporters after the match he's pretty sure it's broken. (His nose, not his spirit.)
Alejandro Bedoya, who patrolled the right flank for the first 77 minutes of the match and was charged with trying to keep the likes of Kwadwo Asamoah in check, seemed to tweak something in his leg as well. Having little choice but to continue on, Bedoya gave a yeoman's shift until he was eventually subbed out for Graham Zusi in the 77th minute. Zusi's fresh legs provided the much-needed spark—and perfect service on the second goal—the United States needed to get past the Ghanaians.
Of course, Zusi was also involved defensively when the dam finally burst, as Ghana was able to attack the right side of Zusi, Fabian Johnson and Geoff Cameron with a wonderful brand of tic-tac-toe passing for the 82nd-minute equalizer. All hopes for three points seemed lost for the United States at that point, with the game becoming more about hanging on and surviving…physically, emotionally and most importantly, with one point in the group.
There is no doubt Ghana was the better team for most of the game, but the Americans did what good teams need to do in the World Cup. They found a way to steal a game. Dempsey was named official Man of the Match after his first-minute tally, but that honor should have gone to Jermaine Jones, who was an absolute rock in the midfield for the U.S.
With Michael Bradley being uncharacteristically off his game for much of the 90 minutes, Jones did exactly what his team needed him to do, fighting toe to toe with the extremely physical Ghanaian players. If Jones wasn't the best player for the U.S., it was probably Kyle Beckerman, who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time under immense pressure just ahead of the center backs.
Cameron played well too in the center of the defense, especially given how many balls—13 deliveries into the penalty area for Ghana—needed to be snuffed out in front of goal.
Tim Howard deserves some plaudits for surviving as well, as he did a masterful job balancing his back line, especially after Brooks entered, while covering the net with a few key saves, the one short-side goal notwithstanding. And not enough can be said about the play of DaMarcus Beasley, who was hideously overmatched trying to mark speedy 22-year-old Christian Atsu—10 years his junior—yet managed to get everything he could out of his tired legs for a full 90-minute shift.
The game felt like a CONCACAF road qualifier where the U.S. was outplayed, out-muscled and out-manned but somehow held a lead with a few minutes to go, hoping to hold on and advance. The three points never felt secure on Monday, even in the moments right after Brooks scored. When Andre Ayew rocketed home a shot off a cheeky back-heel from Asamoah Gyan to level the match with less than 10 minutes to go, even a single point felt unlikely.
And yet somehow the U.S. players not only survived the Ghanaian assault, they did more. They did what we have been conditioned to think Americans will do in a situation that dire. They fought back. They survived. They won. It was a uniquely American moment in so many ways, and yet the result still felt like it wouldn't happen this time. Not against Ghana.
But it did. The U.S. was battered, bruised and beleaguered, but it found a way to secure three points. Now, having survived obstacles great and small, there is light out of the group of death. True survival, it seems, is just a few points away.
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