Three words: Smash. And. Grab.
Right now, those are the sweetest words in the American soccer lexicon.
The United States defeated Ghana 2-1 in its opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup on Monday. John Anthony Brooks dramatically scored the game-winning goal in the 86th minute — four minutes after Ghana’s Andre Ayew tied the game.
The Americans’ performance was ugly in an artistic or aesthetic sense. Ghana controlled possession and territory and created more quality scoring chances over 90 minutes. But the result was one of the most beautiful in men’s national team history. The win gives the United States three crucial points, much-needed momentum and a legitimate shot at advancing to the knockout rounds from the so-called “Group of Death.”
Four years after Landon Donovan scored what some consider to be the most important goal in U.S. men’s national team history, Brooks scored one that could prove to be even more consequential. But unlike Donovan, Brooks is no national team legend. At least, not yet.
Brooks, 21, was a second-half substitute, who this observer didn’t expect to see play a single minute at the 2014 World Cup. Brooks was considered a long-shot to make the roster, and once he was on it, most thought he would be the fourth center back on the depth chart.
Yet, when Matt Besler left the game at halftime with a hamstring problem, Brooks stepped onto the field for just the fifth time in his national team career. This scenario might have proved problematic in Team USA’s previous World Cup journeys, but this is a new Team USA — one that is more talented and deeper than ever. One in which players are held more accountable for their performances than ever before, and results matter like never before. Brooks is a symbol of head coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s new Team USA.
Tactically, the Americans weren’t particularly impressive against Ghana. Technically, they were simply under par.
Physically, the United States was even worse than they were in the aforementioned categories. Jozy Altidore and Besler’s first-half hamstring injuries suggests the players were overworked during a grueling month-long buildup to the tournament. Team USA might skate by for the next two games, but continued fitness could a hindrance in game four and beyond.
Mentally, the fourth, and perhaps most important of soccer’s pillars, the United States players were simply outstanding. They showed immense character by scoring early and late goals. Their communication and focus when defending prevented Ghana from turning its possession into legitimate scoring chances for nearly an an hour, and they were switched on — despite showing obvious signs of physical exhaustion — until the final whistle. Ayew’s goal was the result of one moment of supreme attacking quality. Aside from that, the U.S. defended with courage, honesty and bravery.
Since becoming head coach in July 2011, Klinsmann has constantly challenged the players to reach higher levels. Whether Klinsmann pushes them to play for European clubs or excel in Major League Soccer, the new national-team standards are forcing players to improve in order to retain or earn places on Team USA.
For most current members, there is little room for growth in the technical and tactical realms due to their age. The same goes for their physical state. But many have changed psychologically, assuming a winning mentality. The the Ghana victory and record-breaking 2013 prove this much.
Ghana is a good yardstick to measure Team USA’s growth. The Black Stars eliminated the United States from the previous two World Cups, and the Americans were anxious to show how far they had come in the last few years. The intangible change was slight and hard to see, but it was enough to take the United States over the edge against its Ghanaian foe.
Three more words: The Big Payback.