NATAL, Brazil -- It isn't often that football brings boxing to mind, but Monday night's game between the U.S. and Ghana felt like a middleweight fight. It wasn't just the obvious violence of it -- Clint Dempsey's bloodied nose or the number of his teammates who were legitimately laid out -- it was the rhythm of it. The Americans scored an early knockdown, spent most of the rest of the game covering up, finally cracked and then somehow got up to land a knockout blow in the night's final seconds. It was a long stretch of agony bookended by two moments of glory, football's version of the puncher's chance.
Afterward, Dempsey's nose had been left so broken by a first-half kick to the face that he sounded far away, as though we were listening to him talk through a wall rather than in the same room. The man of the match didn't look elated. He looked sore, and he looked tired, and he looked relieved it was over, at least for now. "I just had trouble breathing," he said. "I was coughing up blood a little bit. Hopefully I'll be able to start breathing through my nose again before the next game."
- Next up: Portugal on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
That next game, against humiliated Portugal on Sunday, is now the one that matters. The weight hasn't been lifted; it's been transferred. That's the reward for winning in the World Cup: You get to fight again.
"This win means nothing unless we're able to build upon it," Dempsey said, and maybe it was that knowledge, as much as his smashed nose, that left him appearing less than jubilant.
In the stands in Natal, filled with so many American fans, John Brooks and his go-ahead goal were the objects of marvel, a scene from a movie. He is a great story, a literal dream come true. But if his being randomly selected for a drug test didn't bring Brooks back to reality quickly enough, his more experienced teammates did. They had won, but they had also been exposed, hurt and lucky. They knew they hadn't beaten Ghana so much as escaped them -- and not unscathed.
Jozy Altidore, who had been stretchered off in tears with a strained left hamstring, embodied the muted nature of the celebration. Asked to describe the atmosphere in the locker room after the game, he said: "It was euphoric." But he didn't sound convinced. "It was tough for me," he said. "I was crushed. I knew right away that I couldn't continue." Then he hobbled away, looking like the latest man to join a bittersweet club: winners who suspect their World Cup might still be over.
Matt Besler also looked more down than up. He had come out of the game with his own hamstring concern, fortunately less serious than Altidore's seemed. "It was a very hard decision," he said, "but I wasn't able to go."
Even the players who had survived intact were measured in their emotions. Any hollering that went on happened in private. "We're happy for the win, but we still think we can improve," Kyle Beckerman said. Tim Howard followed him and spoke about the stakes of the game and the shiver that had gone over it when the Black Stars equalized. "If it goes 2-1 there [for Ghana], that's a catastrophe."
The catastrophe was avoided -- far better, in fact -- and yet the postgame flatness from this American team was universal. "Germany's a buzzsaw," Howard said. Maybe it's hard to have too much bounce in your step when you know where those steps are leading.
Or maybe the Americans have finally reached that place where one win, however dramatic, doesn't do it for them anymore. Jurgen Klinsmann was asked how he felt after Dempsey scored so quickly, a goal in the 29th second that, by the end of the night, felt so long ago.
"You think there can't be anything better than that," Klinsmann said, before he caught himself and turned to talk about how maybe that early goal put his team into a defensive crouch too soon, that the surprise lead had changed the game almost too much.
The curse of a lead is that you feel you need to protect it. Now you have something to lose. Any boxer will tell you that the quickest way to get knocked out is to forget to counter. On Monday night, the Americans remembered just in time to punch back.