World Cup fireworks fired off on Monday night as the United States cast out the demons from the last two World Cups, beating Ghana 2-1. It was an emotional journey, with highs, lows, heart-stopping moments, and a real good-triumphs-over-evil sort of finish to it in the end. If nothing else, this match showed that the Yanks have every chance of advancing out of the Group of Death this year.
That said, the Americans did not emerge unscathed. A pair of possibly-damning injuries will make it difficult for the Nats to make any more dents at this tournament.
If you missed kickoff, you probably missed the first goal. Within the first minute, DaMarcus Beasley and Jermaine Jones played Clint Dempsey toward goal. With a slick cut, he was in the box, and he finished past Ghana goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey to give the U.S. an early lead.
The U.S. held on until the 82nd minute, when over an hour of sustained Ghanaian pressure finally broke the U.S. resolve. Andre Ayew worked an opening with Asamoah Gyan, flicking a great back-heel that saw Gyan fly in on goal and beat Tim Howard at the near post for the equalizer.
It looked bleak for the U.S., who hadn't done much since their goal, but the Yanks would soon restore their lead. Four minutes later, substitute Graham Zusi drove in a beautiful corner in his World Cup debut, finding the head of John Anthony Brooks, who put away the winner in just his fifth cap for the United States.
This match was rife with historical landmarks. At the opening whistle, DaMarcus Beasley became the U.S. first player to appear in four different World Cups. Claudio Reyna and Kasey Keller were both selected to four World Cups, but Run DMB became the first to actually play in four. Congratulations to Beasley on the milestone.
Less than a minute later, Clint Dempsey made history of his own. His goal was not only the fastest World Cup goal the U.S. had ever scored, but he became the first American player to score in three different World Cup finals tournaments. He scored against Ghana in 2006, against England in 2010, and now against Ghana again in 2014.
Finally, John Brooks made history with his winner, and not just because it was the USA's first-ever win over Ghana. In ten World Cup finals appearances, the Nats had never, ever had a substitute score a goal. Brooks, a halftime sub, became the first as he scored his debut goal in the 86th minute.
Jozy Altidore came off in the 23rd minute, replaced by Aron Johannsson after he pulled up short with a hamstring injury. Officially it's been called a hamstring strain, but in any sport, when you see a player stop and lay down clutching his hammy like that, you worry. A strain could mean a lot of things, but it's entirely possible that Jozy's World Cup is over, which would be heart-breaking. If he's gone, Johannsson is his logical, first-choice replacement, but the Iceman does not work the hold-up play as well as Altidore, even if Altidore is not a prototypical hold-up striker. This could be a major, major issue for the problems for the U.S. going forward.
In the 40th minute, Matt Besler appeared to pull up lame with a hamstring problem, too. He was able to finish off the half, but John Brooks replaced him at halftime. Besler is a tad more replaceable, with Brooks and Omar Gonzalez waiting for their chance, but Brooks is young and untested while Gonzalez is prone to mistakes at the international level. Besler is arguably the team's best all-around defender, and if he cannot play for even one match, the U.S. could be in trouble.
A Few Thoughts
- Michael Bradley had a very poor game. He had uncharacteristic giveaways and his engine wasn't as present as usual. However, in the last 10-15 minutes, he came alive, clearly possessing enough energy to still move at 100% while his teammates and opponents around him were slowing down. So much depends on Bradley in this World Cup, and he needs to turn in a smarter performance on Sunday.
- Johannsson needs more help up top. With Dempsey playing as a false 9 and Johannsson running off him, this 4-4-2 diamond is a system that could work, but in the meantime, this match proved that Johannsson has trouble plowing the lone furrow. He's dynamic and incredible and can create for himself, pass to others, and poach, but his work is best done within or just outside the box. That looks to be something the USA will have to solve by Sunday.
- Graham Zusi probably deserves to start. I understand the rationale of running Bradley with Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman to support him and Alejandro Bedoya to attack, but Zusi's passing acumen and set-piece prowess might be the very thing that makes the difference in this tournament. The corners and free kicks before he came on weren't awful, but Zusi's quality was immediately apparent, and it was his corner that created the goal.