So maybe they’re not dead men walking after all, the star-spangled zombies destined to stagger through the Group of Death until they’re pulled under. The US soccer team may not win the World Cup but they may well be among the living after group play is done and that’s more than most soccer observers predicted for them when they were drawn with Ghana, Portugal, and Germany last December.
It wasn’t so much that the Yanks grabbed a precious 3 points in their opener against the Africans on Monday night in Natal, Brazil. It was the way they did it — knocking the Black Stars back on their heels in the first minute, conceding the equalizer in the 82d, then administering the knockout blow four minutes later from a defensive substitute (John Brooks) that nobody but his coach and selector Jurgen Klinsmann knew much about.
Only once in the modern era (since its return to the stage in 1990) had the US won its first Cup outing (3-2 over Portugal in 2002) and it was never more important than it was this time given who’s on the dance card.
If the Americans had lost they almost certainly would have been three-and-out since they’ve never advanced after dropping their opener. And a draw, while acceptable, wouldn’t have done much to advance their cause.
But a victory from a squad that has only a handful of Cup veterans was a terrific start, especially against a rival that had put the Yanks out of the last two tournaments. Ghana, with its speed and size, was a troublesome matchup. So when Clint Dempsey danced and deked his way goalward and lashed the ball off the far post after just 29 seconds, it was a dramatic statement that this American breed goes for the jaw.
Except for the Portuguese match in Korea, when John O’Brien popped in a fat rebound after four minutes, the US had made an unfortunate habit of giving up goals in the first five minutes and having to chase the game and the tournament forever after. So when Dempsey scored the fastest Cup goal in team history (and the fifth-fastest in tournament annals), it was a signal that his mates intended to stick around for a while.
The Americans had gotten a present from Klinsmann’s old team before they even took the field when the Germans knocked the Portuguese into next week Monday afternoon in Salvador. Not only did the Mannschaft hang four goals on Cristiano Ronaldo & Co., they may have put two of Portugal’s key men — striker Hugo Almeida and defender Fabio Coentrao — out of commission for Sunday’s match with the US as well as defender Pepe, who’ll miss the match after his silly red card.
That’s why beating Ghana put the Yanks in a lovely position. If they can dismiss the Portuguese in the Amazon jungle — and the odds of that are decidedly better than they were on Monday morning — they’ll likely be guaranteed advancement to the second round.
Not that there aren’t concerns. Jozy Altidore’s hamstring injury diminishes the US attack which relies on him, Dempsey, and midfielder Michael Bradley to make things happen. (Think the unchosen Landon Donovan might have been a valuable option?) If Altidore, who’d finally found his scoring touch in the tuneup against Nigeria, is sidelined Klinsmann will have to figure out another triangle to keep the pressure off his back four which, except for transformed midfielder DaMarcus Beasley, are Cup rookies.
Except for Andre Ayew’s goal, which came off a lovely backheel from Asamoah Gyan, the US defenders (notably Attleboro native Geoff Cameron) handled themselves creditably against a Ghana team that had a significant edge in shots and corners and goalkeeper Tim Howard was typically solid.
And when it came to winning time the Americans got it done in classic Teutonic style — a Brooks header off a Graham Zusi corner.
Brooks, who plays for Hertha Berlin in his hometown and had only five caps when he arrived in Brazil, is one of Klinsmann’s German-American quintet. His father was an American serviceman from Chicago, his mother a German. He’s 6 feet 4 inches and if a ball is soaring into traffic, he’s getting it.
No US substitute ever had scored in a Cup match but this team has a bunch of rookies like Brooks who aren’t afraid to come off the bench and onto the global stage. They also have a few guys like Dempsey, who’ve been through this monthlong kickaround a couple of times and won’t be rattled. The captain scored the only US goal (against Ghana) in 2006 and the first one (against England) last time.
This time he took a foot to the face (courtesy of John Boye) and came up bloodied but resolute. The man from Nacogdoches once played two matches for the Revolution with a broken jaw. Captain America isn’t going down easy. Nor are his workmates, who are up, up and away with at least two more to play.