NATAL, Brazil – The United States clinched an extraordinary, heart-stopping, last-ditch triumph over Ghana on Monday to give its World Cup campaign a magnificent start.
John Brooks was the unlikely hero with an 86th-minute header that proved to be the winning goal in a contest where the U.S. was forced to defend for long periods under sustained pressure from the Ghanians.
It was thrilling and emotional and may have taken a physical toll on the players, but the Americans now sit with a genuine chance of progressing from Group G, the most difficult of all the World Cup pools.
"This was definitely the start we wanted," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann said. "They worked hard for it. It's a good feeling to have those three points."
Brooks, a towering 21-year-old defender who was on the field only because of an injury to Matt Besler, got his head to a perfect Graham Zusi corner to secure victory just when the U.S. was starting to lose hope.
"I'm sure a lot of fans back home were going crazy in front of their TV," Klinsmann said.
Clint Dempsey had given the U.S. a dream start firing in the opening goal after just 34 seconds, the fastest American goal in tournament history, courtesy of a brilliant twisting run through the Ghana defense.
But the African side, which knocked the U.S. out of the past two World Cups, bounced back strongly and had countless chances to equalize. Ghana eventually did so with eight minutes left when Andre Ayew ran onto a backheel from Asamoah Gyan and flicked the ball into the net.
At that stage, with Klinsmann’s side looking almost totally spent, a heartbreaking defeat was entirely possible. But somehow from somewhere, and in a fashion nearly as dramatic as Landon Donovan’s strike against Algeria at the 2010 World Cup, the team pulled out three priceless points.
"I said after the game to the players that I was convinced we would win this game even after the equalizer," Klinsmann said. "I had the feeling that two or three opportunities would come."
Zusi was a replacement himself and kept his nerve when the team won a late corner, curling it directly onto the head of Brooks, who Ghana somehow forgot to mark.
"He played his first World Cup and scored in it," Klinsmann said. "It was quite a special day for him."
Things do not get any easier, but the Americans can now see real light ahead. Up next is Portugal on Sunday in Manaus, where the U.S. will likely be without injured forward Jozy Altidore. However, they now have a three-point lead on Portugal, which was thrashed 4-0 by Germany, and have a shot at reaching the last 16.
"You've got to deal with [injuries]," Klinsmann said. "We're sorry for Jozy. We hope it's not as bad and we hope we're going to get him back. With Matt, we made the right decision [to take him out]. With Clint, he's fine. Clint has to kind of shake it off. I broke my nose three or four times. It'll hurt him for a few days. It's all right."