Led by Texan Clint Dempsey, U.S.' success in World Cup starts with toughness

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NATAL, Brazil – This came after Clint Dempsey shocked with an opening-minute goal. This came after the United States went into a defensive mode that allowed Ghana to keep coming and coming, wave after wave, cross after cross, leaving American fans from the grandstands here to the living rooms and bars back home with white knuckles and eyes on a clock that seemingly wouldn't tick.

This came after they saw Jozy Altidore go down with a hamstring strain, and Dempsey get his nose bloodied and busted, and then Matt Besler couldn't go after the half, a sore hamstring of his own.

This came after Ghana finally broke through on a brilliant play to tie the score and it looked like every bit of the momentum was gone. Now the U.S. was just clutching and grabbing for a problematic tie, hoping to avoid a disastrous loss. Ghana looked as fresh as ever.

It came even after the Americans bowed up and battled back. It came after they fought for an 86th-minute corner and one sub, Graham Zusi, delivered the ball into the box and it caromed off Geoff Cameron and found another sub, John Brooks. A 21-year-old who few dreamed would play, but himself dreamed two nights ago the game would play out just like this: with him muscling off his defender, gaining position and winning it late, right off his forehead.

And so it did. So he did.

It was even after that, though, after America had erupted both here and back home, and the coach, Jurgen Klinsmann jumped around like he was still a player, or a drunken fan, and Brooks just collapsed in a heap almost too overwhelmed, or exhausted, to celebrate.

[Related: American fans react to late goal comeback ]

There was still a game to be won because Ghana wasn't quitting. Ghana wasn't stopping.

So here came a moment in midfield, extra time on a hot, humid night, and here was Sulley Muntari, the Ghana midfielder who is built like a fullback, the toughest and strongest on a team of players who all seem impossibly tough and strong.

Muntari was charging along, looking to push the ball forward in another last-ditch bid, and after nearly 100 minutes in this South American sauna, after nearly 100 minutes of banging heads and elbows against these guys, there was Dempsey, the Texan, the captain, the guy playing with a busted nose – the guy with a chance to stop it.

Clint Dempsey (right) wasn't worried about colliding with Sulley Muntari. (AP)
Clint Dempsey (right) wasn't worried about colliding with Sulley Muntari. (AP)

And so there he went, stepping in front of this African freight train, getting bulldozed over, slamming violently to the ground but drawing a foul, stopping the play and allowing some more precious seconds to tick off.

"A warrior," Kyle Beckerman said later, in awe of the effort.

"If he's doing it that late in the game, with what he's been through…" Zusi marveled.

That moment of all-out sacrifice was everything the men's national team was about here Monday, winning a game, 2-1, and three critical points in the group, but perhaps, even more importantly, cementing an identity of resilience and toughness.

Klinsmann, the smooth, confident German, arrived three years ago to change the culture of United States soccer. Tactically, the change has been apparent, even as the process remains in its infancy.

[Related: Klinsmann gets reward for global recruitment strategy ]

One thing that can't go, though, is the American grit and heart and effort, which has long been the Americans' legacy. That's what made this side one that even the most elite of international teams respected because they always knew they were in for a battle against the U.S. And that's what won the U.S. a game Monday night.

America may never produce the pure magicians of other countries. But finding guys who are willing to sell out and potentially break their face a second time in a single game … well, that's the reflection of the national personality.

Dempsey (right) was kicked in the face by John Boye. (AP)
Dempsey (right) was kicked in the face by John Boye. (AP)

"It shows our character," Dempsey said. "We kept fighting. We ground out the result."

This was a brutally tough game, so much effort under considerable conditions against an opponent that would likewise refuse to bend. It was exhausting, physically and emotionally. There was so much at stake it felt almost like a knock-out round game.

In the end, though, when the Americans got knocked back to level, they climbed up off the canvas, clinched their fists and swung harder than ever.

"It's going to have to continue," Beckerman said. "That has to be standard. We can get sounder, we can improve in places, but the grit, the determination has to be there."

The examples were up and down the roster, all over the field. Not everyone had a great night, but no one quit, no one stopped.

Front and center was Dempsey, the 31-year-old veteran from a trailer park in Nacogdoches in East Texas, the captain for a reason, an example in every way.

[Related: Clint Dempsey leads by example after playing through pain with broken nose ]

Yeah, his teammates saw the play. They saw the collision. It meant as much as his beautiful opening shot off the far post and in. Maybe even more. Big Sulley Muntari coming strong and beat-up Clint stepping up, no matter the inevitable pain such a collision could produce? How don't you notice?

First-minute goal, final-minute heart, opening-game victory.

"He just battled and battled," Beckerman said. "Sometimes those things aren't coming up on a stats sheet. He's a forward; it's about goals and assists. But he's willing to take those fouls, hold the ball up and just be a pain in the neck sometimes when he needs it."

"That's something you see your captain doing it, and it can really resonate throughout the group," Zusi said. "It makes you want to dig down even deeper."

Here on a night of back-and-forth play, of high stakes and grand stages, of fresh-faced World Cup rookies making dreams reality and a coach promising an overhaul of nearly everything, here came the old American resolve.

"Old school," Zusi said. "Absolutely."

So bring on Ronaldo. Bring on the Germans. Bring on what's next. It's never going to be easy for these guys. It's never going to glamorous. They're never going to be favorites. It's going to be broken noses and desperate goals and late, lonely moment sacrifices.

Deep down they wouldn't want it any other way.

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