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, became 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 from John Brooks in the 86th minute, the first score by an American substitute in World Cup history.
Brooks scored just four minutes after Ghana had tied it on a goal by Andre Ayew.
"It's a great start, a very difficult start against a very strong Ghana team," U.S. Coach Juergen Klinsmann said. "And now we have to work even harder."
But it was also a costly start for the U.S., with two players going out with injuries and another going to the sideline after taking a shot to his face.
Striker Jozy Altidore, who finally appeared to have rediscovered his form, was the first to leave, suffering a hamstring injury midway through the first half. He was stretchered off to the locker room in tears and will be examined Tuesday in Sao Paulo.
But considering that Altidore has injured the same hamstring three times in the last four years, he may be out for the rest of the tournament, leaving the U.S. short at forward.
Dempsey went down next, with a bloody nose after taking a shot from Ghana defender John Boye's lower left leg. After being treated, Dempsey stayed in the game, but afterward he said he thought his nose was broken.
And when the second half began it did so without central defender Matt Besler, who limped off with a tight right hamstring, giving way to the unproven Brooks.
That move would prove decisive when Brooks headed in the winning goal.
"We could see in every training session that [he's] a very, very good talent," Klinsmann said of the 21-year-old Brooks. "No problem for me at all to make [that] decision."
Dempsey's goal got the U.S. off to its fastest start in World Cup history. In fact only four other teams have scored in the first 30 seconds of a World Cup game.
Just after the opening whistle Dempsey got the ball from Jermaine Jones off the left wing, put a brilliant move on Boye to get deep into the penalty area, then left-footed a low shot that bent across the front of the goal and banked in off the far post.
But Ghana, after pressing the whole second half, finally got the equalizer when Ayew split Brooks and fellow defender Geoff Cameron and came in alone on U.S. keeper Tim Howard, beating him easily with a left-footed shot to tie it eight minutes from the end of regulation.
The tie wouldn't last long.
"I was still convinced we were going to win this game even after the equalizer," Klinsmann said. "I had the feeling that another two, three opportunities would come. And we just need to use one of those, which then happened."
And it was Brooks, one of the three "Klinsergartners" — players 21 or younger who have played five or fewer games for the U.S. — who got it back on a set piece four minutes before stoppage time.
Graham Zusi sent a corner kick to the front of the net that apparently was aimed at Cameron. It was just a hair too long, but the 6-foot-4 Brooks, charging in behind Cameron, got his head on it and bounced the ball past keeper Adam Larsen Kwarasey from outside the six-yard box to give the U.S. its first win over Ghana in three World Cups.
"It's a great moment for me," Brooks said. "Unbelievable. I had a dream [two days ago]. I told some teammates 'I dreamed I scored in the 80th minute and we win the game.'
"And now it was the 86th minute and we won."
Injuries, bloody noses and dreams 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 last 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 city of Manaus.
That's because Portugal lost more than just a game Monday, it also lost three starters — one to a red card and two to injury.
Pepe, Portugal's best defender, was sent off in the 37th minute for a head butt and will be ineligible for the U.S. game. Minutes earlier, striker Hugo Almeida had limped to the sideline with an injury, and then in the second half defender Fabio Coentrao was helped off after suffering an apparent groin injury. Their status for Sunday, as with Besler, is uncertain.
"It's just a good feeling to have the first three points," Klinsmann said.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times