In what was a symbolic moment for United States football on Monday night, the USA saw off Ghana 2-1 in Natal with substitute John Brooks’ 86th minute header the deciding factor in the Yanks’ win over their arch-enemies. It was a match of huge significance as well for the US in terms of advancing from the group stage, placing them 2nd in their “Group of Death’ after 1 match apiece following Germany’s 4-0 smashing of Portugal earlier in the day. Indeed, Jurgen Klinsmann’s men can be proud of their resilience in a match which saw plenty of injuries and fatigue from the United States, but those exact things will also cause Klinsmann much anxiety as the build-up begins for the US’ next group match against Portugal on Sunday night in the more humid conditions of Manaus.
The match got off to the best possible start for the United States when Clint Dempsey wiggled his way past the Ghanaian defense before placing past Adam Kwarasey to open the scoring inside of 1 minute (34 seconds to be exact) and send the near 20,000 US fans at the Estadio das Dunas into a state of delirium. The good spell from the US continued as well with Alejandro Bedoya producing a wonderful cross to Jozy Altidore only minutes later, although the Sunderland man couldn’t catch hold of his header. This tremendous start for the US was also aided by the lackluster one of the Ghanaians, with the surprising omission of Kevin-Prince Boateng from the starting 11 a potential factor. That vibrant start from the US hit a sour note on 23 minutes though, as the aforementioned Altidore was stretched off with an apparent hamstring pull and replaced by the vastly less experienced Aron Jóhannsson of AZ Alkmaar. Altidore’s injury may prove to be a crucial one as well for Klinsmann as Altidore’s World Cup may well be over if its a hamstring tear.
The Altidore injury impacted the US attack for the remainder of the match as Jóhannsson didn’t get into the game much in the 67 minutes he played, aside from the odd touch or two and showed his inexperience towards the end as the US tried to kill clock in the dying moments. Regardless, the US managed to hold on until halftime despite the fact that Ghana grew into the game more while the US became farther detached possession wise.
Halftime brought more injury concerns for Klinsmann with defender Matt Besler taken off due to tightness felt in his hamstring, a precautionary sub according to Klinsmann, as Brooks took his place in the heart of defense. Clint Dempsey also had his own injury evaluated during the break as he may have suffered a broken nose in the first half when he was kicked in the face by the wildly swinging leg of Ghana’s John Boye. All this added up to the United States having to use 2 substitutions prior to the start of the second half, a fact that played a role in their second half fatigue.
The second half involved a defensive approach from the US as they dropped into their own half while Michael Bradley, Dempsey, and Jóhannsson feasted on scraps up front. The US defending for the most part went quite well with goalie Tim Howard infrequently called into action as Ghana rolled the dice by bringing on Boateng, Michael Essien, and Albert Adomah as sparkplugs to try and find the equalizer. However, as the second 45 wore on, fatigue beset the United States players as Geoff Cameron, Alejandro Bedoya, and Fabian Johnson were just 3 of the many players seen struggling as the game wore on. From frequent water breaks to cramps to stretching as the game progressed, the US were withering away in the Natal humidity and were made to pay for their inferior fitness on 82 minutes as Andre Ayew delightfully put past Howard, beating the Everton man at his near post with an outside of the boot hit following a lovely back heel set up from continuing US tormentor Asamoah Gyan.
Despite the fantastic equalizer and threat of a second from Ghana, the US showed their newfound resiliency under Klinsmann just moments later as Brooks rose up on a Graham Zusi corner to nod past Kwarasey and steal the 3 points right at the end for the United States, claiming a key if not a bit undeserved win.
The win signals a turning point for the US, as they finally defeat Ghana at the 3rd time of asking and do away with the demons from both 2006 and 2010 respectively. However, as sweet as this win is for Klinsmann and his players, there is work still to do ahead of them, made exponentially harder by Altidore’s apparent World Cup ending injury. The fitness of the United States is another matter as well needing addressing, with the North Americans struggling mightily under the conditions in Natal, only a taste of what is to come on Sunday in the Amazon. Its not only a lack of stamina that’s plaguing the US side as 2 players suffered muscle injuries (in warm conditions nonetheless) while another (Dempsey) had a facial one. All of a sudden, this US side is looking pretty banged up ahead of the clash with CR7 and Portugal, who mind you are nicked up in their own right.
At the end of the day, it is truly a mixed bag of emotions for Jurgen Klinsmann and the US camp as night sets and dawn rises in Sao Paulo, where they are centered at this World Cup. Klinsmann on one hand will be absolutely thrilled about the three points and gutsy win that his team secured on the night, while on the other he will be very concerned about their fitness/physical condition and about the availability of Altidore and Besler for the Portugal match on Sunday night. Wherever this World Cup is set to take the US remains an unknown, but for the time being, the United States have real, sustainable hope in a group in which many thought they would have none.