USA beats Ghana, 2-1, in first World Cup match

NATAL, Brazil -- U.S. defender John Anthony Brooks has a map on one elbow of Germany, where he grew up, and a map of Illinois, where his father's family is from, on the other. On Monday, he put all 6 foot 4 inches of his lumbering frame on the map by scoring the United States' winning goal in the 86th minute in a 2-1 win over Ghana in their World Cup opener.

Few would have expected Brooks, a second-half sub, to save the day, but this was a night where nothing expected happened. From the shotgun start to the withering hamstrings to the missing-in-action play of stalwarts like Michael Bradley.

The unexpected began in the first 29 seconds. Nothing in soccer happens in 29 seconds. The teams feel each other out, the play builds from the back, rising like a crescendo. Except on Monday night.

Before the fan chants of I believe that we will win could even get started, Clint Dempsey sidestepped defender John Boye, took a quick touch and buried the ball with his left foot into the corner.

He sprinted to the corner and let a primal roar so loud, the folks back home in Nagadouches, Texas, probably heard. On the sideline, coach Jurgen Klinsmann did his best Jim Valvano. With outstretched hands in disbelief, he needed someone to hug or high-five.

Estadio das Dunas, half full of Outlaws and other American crazies, cheered wildly in did-this-really-happen euphoria.

This is the way the United States' World Cup opener began, only to be followed by 89 minutes, mostly of agony.

In the 21st minute, forward Jozy Altidore grabbed his left hamstring and fell to the pitch. As he was carried off on a stretcher, he covered his eyes with his hands. Klinsmann, at Altidore's side, cradled his striker's head. A strained hamstring would keep him out the rest of the game. In his place: a 23-year-kid from Iceland, but born in Alabama, named Aron Johannsson.

In the 82nd minute, Andre Ayew finally broke through for the Black Stars, smashing the ball past goalkeeper Tim Howard.

"When they got the equalizer, it's a credit to team that we kept fighting. It's a huge three points for us. Regardless of results, showed a lot of effort," Dempsey said, who suffered a broken nose during the physical game.

Four minutes after Ghana struck, Brooks arrived to save the day. Fittingly, the winning goal was scored on a set piece, exactly what has lifted the team in previous World Cups.

Brooks headed Graham Zusi's corner kick for the winning goal, becoming the first substitute to ever score for the United States in 30 World Cup games over 84 years. He was so stunned, he fell to the field and was smothered by his teammates. The reserves leapt off the bench and nearly joined the celebration on the field. Presumably, Klinsmann found someone to hug.

"It was a special moment for the boy," Klinsmann said, sounding like a proud papa. He made the decision to put Brooks in the second half after Matt Besler was struggling with some soreness. "John came in and he played his first World Cup game and he scored in it so it's quite a special day for him."

Keeping with the theme of the day, Brooks was an unexpected addition to the American roster. He had made his national team debut only last August, and had made only four appearances in a U.S. jersey.

Brooks has shown such theatrics before. He scored his first goal on his first touch in his first game in the Bundesliga for Hertha Berlin last season.

Even so, he was an unexpected addition to the World Cup roster, coming off a mercurial first season with Hertha Berlin. Then he struggled in an appearance with the national team against Ukraine. "We had to figure out is he ready for the World Cup or does he take a year of two in his development. We had the feeling he's ready for it," Klinsmann said.

Even before the opening whistle, everything seemed to be going the USA's way. In the afternoon, Germany dominated Portugal, 4-0, a result that favors the Americans. Plus, Portugal defender Pepe was ejected and will miss the game against the USA on Sunday in Manaus.

If Germany's dominance, and Portugal's unraveling, continues the Americans chances of getting out of the Group of Death look promising.

Ghana's Asamoah Gyan had said the Americans had added motivation entering the game. "They're coming for revenge," Gyan said earlier. "Mentally they don't want us to beat them for a third time which will make it interesting and difficult for us."

Though the U.S. players downplayed past history, this game mattered. Klinsmann had called it as important as a World Cup final and the numbers bear out. Since the 1998 World Cup, when the tournament expanded to 32 with two teams per group advancing, only 9% of teams that lost their first World Cup game (4 of 46) advanced to the knockout stage.

Four years ago, Ghana eliminated the USA in the 2010 Round of 16 by the same score – 2-1 in overtime. In 2006, Ghana sent the USA home in group play.

This time, the Americans just might return the favor.


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