NATAL, Brazil -- The U.S. has broken Ghana's World Cup spell at last.
The Americans rode goals from Clint Dempsey and substitute John Brooks -- one very early, the other quite late -- to give the U.S. a priceless three points in Group G. It also put an end to the Ghanaians' modest hex over the Americans, one that had seen the Black Stars eliminate the U.S. from the last two World Cups.
- Next up: Portugal on Sunday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN)
It was a match that was by no means an aesthetic masterpiece, and the U.S. showed little of the attacking prowess that manager Jurgen Klinsmann has long promised. The Americans were forced to defend for excruciatingly long stretches, and struggled mightily to keep the ball. On top of that, Klinsmann was forced to make two injury-induced substitutions as striker Jozy Altidore and defender Matt Besler were forced off with muscle injuries.
But this was a night when the U.S. made the plays that mattered, and the lack of attacking thrust is something that won't bother Klinsmann's side one bit. This was a match on which the Americans had placed immense importance, and the fact that they succeeded will give the team a huge jolt of confidence, regardless of the methods.
That said, the U.S. was able to ride some mammoth performances.
Tim Howard produced a massive game in goal, while Geoff Cameron, Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman all played huge roles as well. On a night when defense was the key to survival, the aforementioned quartet loomed large.
But none will take more satisfaction than Brooks. When Klinsmann announced his World Cup roster last month, his inclusion was criticized. But Brooks repaid his manager's faith with a decade's worth of interest, as he hammered home Graham Zusi's corner with just four minutes remaining, this just four minutes after Andre Ayew had equalized for Ghana.
The Americans couldn't have gotten off to a more perfect start. A quick throw-in saw DaMarcus Beasley play the ball into Jones, whose one-touch pass to Dempsey allowed the U.S. captain to run at Ghana's defense. Dempsey skinned Ghana defender John Boye and then rocketed his shot into the net off the far post. At 29 seconds, it was the fastest goal in U.S. World Cup history.
Ghana spent the remainder of the half enjoying almost all of the possession and continually testing the left side of the U.S. defense. And while the Americans permitted plenty of crosses, the combination of Howard and center backs Cameron and Besler helped keep the Black Stars off the scoreboard.
The U.S. suffered a major blow in the 21st minute, when Jozy Altidore suffered a strained right hamstring as he chased down a long pass upfield. Altidore's ability with his back to goal is unique on the U.S. roster, but it was left to Aron Johannsson to try to try replicate Altidore's role. Ghana continued to carry most of the play, and 2010 nemesis Asamoah Gyan nearly equalized in the 32nd minute, only to see his fierce drive parried away by Howard.
The injury bug continued to plague the U.S. as the half progressed. Dempsey took a shin to the face that bloodied his nose. Besler then appeared to injure his right hamstring, and though he managed to last the half, he was replaced at the interval by Brooks.
The U.S. enjoyed a mild revival to close the half with Alejandro Bedoya threatening from a free kick that Adam Kwarasey punched clear. Johannsson then linked up with Bedoya on one attack, but his shot from the return feed lacked sufficient power to threaten the Ghana goal.
The Ghanaian assault on the U.S. goal continued into the second half. Gyan's header off a Sulley Muntari cross went just over the U.S. goal early on, and Howard was on hand to touch another Gyan effort wide in the 58th minute. A curling effort from Christian Atsu went just high four minutes later.
A drive from Jones in the 63rd minute that was saved by Kwarasey briefly stemmed the tide, but Ghana was soon back on the front foot with Cameron deflecting Gyan's close-range shot over the goal on the very next attack.
It seemed only a matter of time until Ghana broke through, and they finally did in the 82nd minute. Ayew played a give-and-go with Gyan, and with Fabian Johnson unable to keep up, he slotted his shot past Howard to bring the Black Stars level.
But just when it seemed the match was headed for a draw, the Americans struck from a trademark set piece. Zusi whipped in an enticing corner kick, and Brooks timed to his run perfectly to nod the ball home from seven yards, bringing delirium to the U.S. bench, and the American fans in attendance.
The U.S. gamely hung on from there, and the final whistle was met with unabashed joy from Klinsmann and his players. Up next: Portugal in Manaus at 6 p.m. ET on Sunday.
G Tim Howard, 8 -- Commanded his box well and was quick off his line. Produced a fine save to deny Gyan in the first half and denied him again in the second.
D DaMarcus Beasley, 4 -- Had trouble keeping his feet, and did little to prevent the steady stream of crosses coming from his side. Improved in the second half but will need to improve against Portugal.
D Matt Besler, 6 -- His clearances weren't always as authoritative as they needed to be, but he had some crucial blocks and was solid overall, though his passing wasn't at his normal level. An injured hamstring ended his night after 45 minutes.
D Geoff Cameron, 7 -- Commanding in the air and had some key clearances on the ground, but wasn't as clean with his passing as he needed to be. That said, this night was all about defending, and he proved to be immense in that area.
D Fabian Johnson, 4 -- Didn't have to do much defensively in the first half and was largely contained in terms of the attack. He defended his side of the field well, that is until he failed to track Ayew's run.
M Jermaine Jones, 7 -- His slick pass helped set up Dempsey, but he was inconsistent on the ball afterward. That said, on a night when the U.S. did a ton of defending, his presence, hustle and savvy were vital.
M Kyle Beckerman, 7 -- Played his usual simple, possession-based game and delivered some vital tackles as well. An absolute rock in midfield.
M Michael Bradley, 4 -- Though he put in his usual shift on defense, his attacking game seemed miles off. He played shaky passes throughout and his touch was lacking as well.
M Alejandro Bedoya, 6 -- Provided his usual graft on defense, and threatened with a free kick in the first half, but struggled to link up with teammates. His work rate was immense.
F Clint Dempsey, 7 -- He made one of the plays that mattered, taking his goal with aplomb. Struggled to have an impact thereafter, but this was more down to the team's inability to keep the ball.
F Jozy Altidore, 6 -- Held the ball up well during his brief time on the field, only to see his night cut short by his aforementioned hamstring injury.
F Aron Johannsson, 5 -- Tried to step into Altidore's shoes, but struggled with his back to goal.
D John Brooks, 8 -- Had a shaky beginning, but came up big in the end. He eventually settled down on defense and his header gave the U.S. three huge points.
M Graham Zusi, 7 -- Brought some badly needed energy to the U.S. midfield, and his inch-perfect cross set up the game winner.