NATAL, Brazil — It’s all starting to come together.
The U.S. team’s route out of pool play in this World Cup, which looked muddled and confused Monday morning, had become as clean as Michael Bradley’s bald head by Monday evening following the Americans’ physical 2-1 win over Ghana in Natal and Germany’s 4-0 pummeling of Portugal in Manaus.
The U.S. goals came from Clint Dempsey in the opening 30 seconds, the fastest goal by an American in World Cup history, and John Brooks in the 86th minute, four minutes after Andre Ayew had tied it for Ghana.
That may be a bit ambitious, especially since Monday’s hard-fought win was also a costly one. The U.S. lost striker Jozy Altidore, who finally appeared to have rediscovered his form, to a hamstring injury midway through the first half then saw central defender Matt Besler subbed out at halftime after limping through part of the first half with an apparent calf injury.
Altidore was racing Ghana’s John Boye to get under a Bradley pass on a counterattack in the 21st minute when he pulled up, then dropped to the turf clutching his left hamstring.
He was stretched off the field and to the locker room with Aron Johannsson coming on to take his place. (Would have been nice to have Landon Donovan in that situation, huh?)
Doctors called it a hamstring strain but Altidore missed substantial time in 2011 and again in 2013 with injuries to the same hamstring.
A few minutes later Dempsey went down with a bloody nose following a shot from Boye’s lower left leg. But after retiring to the sideline to be patched up, he stayed in the game.
Still, injuries and bloody noses aside, Klinsmann’s team looks to be headed in the right direction.
To advance out of its four-team group-something the U.S. has accomplished in three of the past five World Cups-the Americans need at least a win and a tie in their three first-round games. They got one of those Monday and now appear to have a good chance at the other when they meet an even-more-bruised and battered Portugal on Sunday in the Amazon.
That’s because Portugal lost more than just a game Monday, they also lost three starters — one to a red card and two to injury.
Pepe, the team’s best defender, was sent off in the 37th minute for a ridiculous headbutt and will leave him ineligible for the U.S. game. Minutes before striker Hugo Almeida had limped to the sideline with an injury and then in the second half defender Fabio Coentrao was helped off with an apparent groin injury. The injured pair’s status for Sunday is uncertain. This being Natal-Portuguese for Christmas, owing to the city being settled on Dec. 25 – consider all that a gift.
And this too: the lineup Ghana started Monday did not include midfielders Michael Essien, the team’s most experienced player, or Kevin-Prince Boateng. Both came on in the second half, after the oppressive humidity had worn down the American defense-and perhaps contributed to the injuries that felled Altidore and Besler.
It was an interesting gamble by Ghana Coach Akwasi Appiah because while he got fresh and talented legs on late, for the first 60 minutes it was easier night then it might have been for the U.S. backline, which saw four players make their World Cup debut.
And the backline looked inexperienced especially when Besler, who played in 12 games for the U.S. last year, came out in favor of the 21-year-old Brooks, who came to Brazil with just five international caps. Sometimes it pays to be lucky rather than good, though-two good Ghana chances were broken up when the ball bounced off U.S. defender Geoff Cameron before Brooks scored the game-winner.
Dempsey’s goal, the fifth-fastest in World Cup history, was also the first for a U.S. forward since 2002. Dempsey got the ball from Jermaine Jones, put a brilliant move on Ghana’s Boye to get deep into the penalty area, then left-footed a low shot that bent across the front of goal and banked in off the far post.
Ayew then split Cameron and Brooks and came in along on U.S. keeper Tim Howard, beating him easily with a left-footed shot to tie it. But the tie didn’t last long. And fittingly it was Cameron and Brooks who played a part in getting that goal back.
Graham Zusi sent a corner to the front of the net where he appeared to be intended for Cameron. It was just a hair too long but a charging Brooks, running in behind Cameron, got his head on it and bounced the ball in from outside the six-yard box.
Jones played an inspired game. His playmaking was creative most of the night — he certainly did a better job than Bradley — and with a little luck he could have had at least one, maybe two more assists. Plus he uncorked a long second-half rocket that nearly surprised Ghana keeper Adam Kwarasey.