NATAL, Brazil – Since American soccer emerged from the doldrums at the World Cup in 1990, iconic images in the country’s relatively short history in the sport have generally fallen into two distinct categories.
First, the hands-stretched-wide, mouth agape goal celebrations of Earnie Stewart, Brian McBride and, perhaps most famously to casual fans, Landon Donovan circa 2010, each one an “Americans aren’t supposed to do that” kind of moment.
And second, the Rosie the Riveter stuff. Bloody, broken noses are best, but if you can split your face open like McBride did on a stray Italian elbow in 2006, you’ll never buy your own drink at a bar in the States again.
Somehow, some way, the Americans managed both kinds of serious scrapbook-type stuff in their World Cup opener here on Monday night. The goals belonged to Clint Dempsey and John Brooks, but the entire team spent just about every minute in between checking the bridge of their collective nose just to see if it was busted.
Luckily, it wasn’t. The Americans’ 2-1 win over Ghana was arguably the ugliest, grittiest, most painful victory in the program’s history. The US were exposed by Ghana’s speed time and time again and were lucky at times the Black Stars had an atrocious night actually putting the ball in the goal. Had fate gone another way or a ball skipped inches to the right or left, the Americans’ hopes at the World Cup could have been washed up on the beach long before they left Natal.
But when it was finally over – after Dempsey scored 29 seconds in and Brooks dropped to his knees in disbelief after adding the game-winner on a thumping header 86 minutes later – it meant the US national team was one huge stride closer to actually surviving the World Cup’s Group of Death after all.
Said goalkeeper Tim Howard: “Now, it’s possible.”
First, Dempsey. The largely pro-American crowd that topped 38,000 fans was barely seated before the US captain took a pass from midfielder Jermaine Jones on the left side of the box and juked past Ghana defender John Boye like his cleats were stuck in a sprinkler head. The finish looked remarkably easy from there, and Dempsey’s celebration oozed language emphatically and beautifully not fit for school children. Heck yes, indeed, kids.
The goal was the fastest ever by an American in a World Cup and the fifth fastest by any player ever in the tournament, and also lofted Dempsey into a class all his own among American strikers. He’s now the only player in US history to score in three consecutive World Cups.
But from there, it was mostly duck-and-cover stuff from the Americans, who somehow absorbed a physical pounding and waves of pressure from Ghana for more than 80 minutes. Dempsey himself took a stray acrobatic kick from Boye in the first half that likely broke his nose – “Hopefully I’ll start breathing through my nose again before the next game,” he said – and both Jozy Altidore and Matt Besler went down with hamstring injuries that called Jurgen Klinsmann’s bench into action more urgently that anyone could have expected.
Luckily, Klinsmann may have seen it all coming. The starters and reserve players rarely warm up in the same fashion before a game like they did on Monday night, each one preparing as if they’d get the chance to make an instant last a lifetime.
“It’s almost like Jurgen can see the future,” said midfielder Kyle Beckerman, one of eight US players who made their World Cup debut on Monday. “This is the first time we had every player on the bench warm up before the game. For what reason, I don’t know.”
Brooks was one of those called into duty, and was perhaps the greenest of them all. The German-American defender wasn’t even cap-tied before he took the field for the second half for the injured Besler, but less than 45 minutes later, the 21-year-old was laying face down on the grass with his teammates piled around him, just as stunned as anyone he’d scored a game-winning goal in the World Cup.
While Brooks lingered on the field long after, the scene was less understated on the US sideline. The bench erupted and Klinsmann embraced whomever he could, a celebration likely replicated on barstools and in basements, in cubicles and all catacombs of American soccer.
“Some players couldn’t really believe it before the game, that the moment was there,” Klinsmann said. “It’s exciting for us, but we need to step it up even more to get a result against Portugal and Germany. We have a lot of confidence and we have a lot of energy to give them real games. That’s what we’re going to do.”
Real games, as if this one was a fluke? Or even worse, a dream?
Don’t worry, because it happened. Just check the scrapbook.