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USA shows 'great spirit'

Fights through tough conditions to hold on to three points in World Cup opener vs. Ghana.

John Brooks watches his header bounce into the net for the United States' game-winning goal against Ghana. (Hassan Ammar/AP)
John Brooks watches his header bounce into the net for the United States' game-winning goal against Ghana. (Hassan Ammar/AP)Read more

IN THE DAYS leading up to the 2014 World Cup, United States midfielder Michael Bradley had talked about his team needing to suffer to get the positive results the players desired.

Advancing out of Group G, one designated as a so-called Group of Death because of the presence of Germany, Portugal and Ghana, was always going to require an extraordinary effort for Team USA - an effort that would demand a push to the limits and then beyond.

The United States national team suffered last night in the Brazil city of Natal in its World Cup opener.

Ghana was the Ghost of Christmas Past, haunting the USA with memories of the African nation eliminating it from the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.

The conditions were as brutal as you'd think when playing a match in the middle of an Amazon rain forest.

A hamstring injury to forward Jozy Altidore tossed the United States' offensive game plan out the window.

So even though Clint Dempsey had produced a lightning-quick lead with an exquisite goal just 29 seconds in, this game was going to evolve into a character test for the USA.

"Sometimes it hurts you when you score early," Dempsey said of his tally, which was the fastest World Cup goal in United States history.

Ghana pressed forward and the Americans fell into a defensive shell that they never quite found a way to get out of.

But it is hard to hold on to a one-goal lead for at least 89 minutes of soccer, and it became even harder when Matt Bessler, a starter on an already suspect defensive back four, was taken out of the game at halftime as a precaution against a tweaked hamstring.

Bessler's replacement was John Anthony Brooks Jr., a 21-year-old citizen of Germany who was eligible to compete for the USA. Brooks was one of the more debated inclusions to the 23-man roster by USA coach Jurgen Klinsmann.

Brooks, who had four previous caps for the USA, came into the game not because he was the next best defender in line.

It was circumstance.

Brooks entered because he had been practicing on the left side. Had the right back been hurt, Klinsmann said he would have put in Los Angeles Galaxy defender Omar Gonzalez, who has been practicing on the right side.

The USA fought to keep the lead as Ghana pushed wave after wave of pressure to get the equalizer.

"We were happy to have the goal because it gave us something to hang on to," USA goalie Tim Howard said. "We knew Ghana would be coming."

Still, the way the Ghanaians dictated and controlled the run of play you could sense that a game-tying tally was inevitable.

And it came when midfielder Andre Ayew, who had boldly claimed that there was "no way" the Black Stars would lose to America, scored in the 82nd minute.

Ghana had momentum and now the United States was just looking to hold on for a draw. The goal was to get three points out of the match with Ghana, but one point was considered a must.

"We knew it would be a grind, that it would go down to the wire against a very strong Ghana side," Klinsmann said.

But Klinsmann said he also felt that the USA was going to win, even after Ghana tied the game.

Maybe he saw something in his players' eyes, something that enabled them to overcome the physical suffering they were going through and pull out something deeper.

"The mentality and determination to stick together even when things weren't going well," Bradley said of what he saw out of his teammates on the pitch.

A few months ago, Brooks looked like he had played his way off the USA roster. The son of an American serviceman who was born and raised in Berlin, Brooks plays for Hertha BCS, one of the oldest clubs in Germany.

Brooks' selection over more experienced USA defenders like Clarence Goodson and Michael Parkhurst raised eyebrows.

But a World Cup game is a place where magical moments can come from the most unexpected individuals.

USA defender Geoff Cameron nearly got a head on the corner kick that Graham Zusi sent into the Ghana penalty box in the 86th minute.

Brooks was also leaping right next to him. When Zusi's service found his head, Brooks did what every coach from youth league to the Bundesliga has told him.

Head the ball down; head it on goal and head it with pace.

Brooks' strong header from 8 yards out bounced by the outstretched arms of Ghana goalie Adam Kwarasey and high into the back of the net.

United States 2, Ghana 1.

And now the USA takes a valuable three points into its match Sunday against a desperate Portugal team that was taken apart, 4-0, by Germany.

"We have a great spirit," Klinsmann said of his team, which sits with Germany on top of Group G. "The United States always has a great spirit and fights to the last second.

"It was a grind, but it was a wonderful one at the end of the day. We got the three points we so badly wanted. The players worked hard for it."

No, the United States players suffered for it, just as Bradley said they would have to.

"It was a tough game and the conditions were tough," Dempsey said. "I broke my nose, which made it real hard to breathe.

"At the end of the day, we showed a lot of character."