The towering USMNT prospect who came of age with his best game ever
PHILADELPHIA – The game was only 11 minutes old. Paraguay had broken away from the halfway line, three-on-one. And even that one – John Brooks – was a step behind the pack.
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As they bore down on Brad Guzan's goal, Brooks was closing ground and tracked towards Miguel Almiron, the ball carrier. With the attacker preparing to shoot, Brooks took a final step and vaulted his long legs forward. No margin at all for error now. Not in his own box. Graze the attacker and he'd concede a penalty, get sent off and be suspended for the Copa America Centenario quarterfinal. If the U.S. even got there, as they'd now be a man and likely a goal down.
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But Brooks – the new, mature and stone-cold Brooks – timed and aimed his tackle so perfectly that he redirected the ball without even coming close to touching a stunned Almiron.
He hopped back up. He pumped a fist. He emitted a roar.
There was a lot of time left to play, and the Americans would go down a man anyway when DeAndre Yedlin managed to incur two yellow cards on consecutive plays at the start of the second half. But a Clint Dempsey goal and a spirited effort to conserve the lead would earn the Yanks not just a 1-0 win and three points but first place in their group, too. Their likely reward is that they'll miss Brazil in the quarterfinals and instead face the much more beatable Peru or Ecuador instead.
But all of that is on Thursday, in Seattle. First, there is time to revel in the coming of age of a towering prospect – literally, at 6-foot-4 – who had vexed the American fans. Because the 23-year-old Hertha Berlin center back's 24th appearance in the U.S. jersey was by far his best. And it underscored the enormous progress the German-American has made in the Bundesliga.
Recall, after all, his early days with the national team, when he was so raw and gaffe-prone that, for his many and obvious gifts, it didn't seem worthwhile to let him experience all of his growing pains publicly, at the senior level and to the detriment of the team. He didn't look ready. He seemed years away from becoming a reliable contributor. His club once kicked him off the team for being too sore to practice from a back tattoo he got. He seemed immature. Maybe even unprofessional.
Head coach Jurgen Klinsmann stuck with him anyway, riding him through last summer's failure at the Gold Cup, when the U.S. finished just fourth – the Americans' worst performance at the biennial regional championship in a decade and a half – despite the clamor when he kept making mistakes. And since then, Brooks has broken out with Hertha and become a strong defender in a Bundesliga full of them.
"You're just impressed by the learning curve a younger player goes through and you're just happy for him," Klinsmann said following Saturday's game. "A year ago a lot of people were very critical of him. I said, 'He has to have those experiences. He needs to kind of make mistakes to grow.' There's no growth without failure, for nobody. So he grew."
Brooks had been impressing his teammates in practice for a while. And he had been solid in the tournament. But goalkeeper Brad Guzan argues Brooks' performance against Paraguay had been longer in the making.
"I don't think it's just his growth in the tournament. It's his growth in the last 12 months playing week in and week out in Germany," Guzan said. "That's what playing consistent football does for a young player. He's been great for us and you guys are starting to see what we see in training."
A defender truly transcends his position when he covers not just his own ground and man, but those of his peers as well. Brooks did that on Saturday, covering for central defensive partner Geoff Cameron when he got beat, helping Fabian Johnson on his left and stabilizing the back line when Yedlin was sent off.
That sending off, in a sense, was akin to Brooks' own trial by fire on the national team a year earlier, reminding of the patience and confidence he was shown then.
"Inexperience," Klinsmann said of the 22-year-old Yedlin's expulsion. "He got emotional. This is why you're young. He will learn out of that mistake."
But Brooks' thriving was just as much a function of his own form as of Klinsmann finally – finally – settling on a back line, after spending almost five years cycling through dozens of candidates. His entire lineup has been unchanged throughout the Copa America Centenario, in fact – the first time since 1930 that the Americans used the same lineup three games in a row.
"It doesn't hurt," captain Michael Bradley said. "It's just familiarity, in terms of who's on the field, how to play together, how to move together, defensively what it looks like. Consistency is always a good thing."
Klinsmann figures Brooks might be earning himself a transfer to a bigger club. "It's fun to see some players coming through now," he said. "I think John Brooks with a performance like this, I guess all of Europe [and its big clubs] is watching that. This is a big statement what he did tonight."
Klinsmann warned, however, of the effects of too much praise, just after he praised him some more himself. "That performance by John was definitely something special," Klinsmann said. "But we keep him grounded please."
After the final whistle rang out on a hot and humid night and the U.S. celebrated, the big screen at Lincoln Financial Field showed Brooks and his Man of the Match designation. He got a big cheer from the 51,000 on hand. Then he crossed himself and stepped off the field.
"Man, he was a beast, man – winning every freaking header in the box," midfielder Alejandro Bedoya said. "He's got a bright future."
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.