Dempsey at the gun, Brooks at the death deliver victory for the U.S., 2-1 over Ghana

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The fastest goal in the team’s World Cup history looked like it would unrewarded, but thanks late heroics from a halftime substitute, the United States has its first opening game victory since 2002. Heading home a Graham Zusi corner in the 86th minute, 21-year-old John Brooks gave the U.S. a 2-1 win over the Black Stars, exorcising some lingering demons in the process.

The U.S. was eliminated by Ghana from the last two World Cups, with the Black Stars’ 2-1 in extra time at South Africa 2010 sending the nation to its first quarterfinal. On Monday, however, the U.S. led for 85 minutes, with only André Ayew’s 82nd minute equalizer giving the four-time African champions hope of salvaging a result.

That equalizer came after Clint Dempsey set a U.S. record 34 seconds in, finishing from just outside the six-yard box to give his team an early 1-0 lead. Four minutes before the end of regulation time, Brooks restored the U.S.’s advantage, giving the team its first perfect start since defeating Portugal at World Cup 2002.

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With Germany defeating the Seleccao earlier on Monday, the U.S. moves into a tie atop Group G, labeled by many as Brazil 2014’s Group of Death. Goal difference gives the favored Germans the edge among the two perfect teams, but with a hobbled Portugal up next, the U.S.’s win over Ghana represents a huge step toward securing a spot in the tournament’s final 16.

That match will take place on Sunday in the Amazonian city of Manaus, where conditions should mimic the 78 percent humidity that slowed the Americans tonight in Natal. Ghana, in the meantime, will face Germany in Fortaleza, with tonight’s loss meaning the Black Stars will in all likelihood need a result from the 2010 semifinalists.

With the first attacking movement of the game, the U.S. were on the board. Pressuring the Ghanaian defense into an early turnover, the U.S.’s quick throw-in from the left gave captain Clint Dempsey a chance to go one-on-one against central defender John Boye. Leaning left before cutting right, Dempsey moved in on goalkeeper Adam Kwarasey, who was left to kick in vain at a left-footed shot that found the far corner. After 34 seconds, with the sixth-fastest goal in World Cup history, the U.S. was up, 1-0.

Come the half-hour mark, the game assumed the posture it would take into halftime, with a U.S. defense that congested the middle of the park forcing the Ghanaians to play from high and wide. Sharp reads from Tim Howard stifled attempts to pass through the defense, while the Black Stars had no luck getting behind fullbacks DaMarcus Beasley and Fabian Johnson. Come halftime, the U.S. had retained its 1-0 lead, with both teams registering one shot on target.

Along the way, however, the U.S. lost starting striker Jozy Altidore to injury, with the Sunderland forward replaced by Aron Johannsson after going down with a left hamstring injury in the 21st minute. In the middle of the half, a leg to the face of Dempsey from Ghanaian defender Jonathan Mensah left the team’s captain with a bloody nose, while another hamstring problem, this time afflicting defender Matt Besler, saw Brooks come on at halftime. By the 46th minute, Jürgen Klinsmann had used two of his substitutions.

source: AP
United States’ Clint Dempsey leaps as he celebrates after scoring the opening goal  between Ghana and the United States. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

Despite the changes, the second half began as the first ended, with Ghana left to probe the edges to the U.S. defense, with their sequences usually ending with a ball rolled to Howard. Ten minutes into the half, a long-range shot from Sulley Muntari and an open header for Asamoah Gyan gave the U.S. its first scare, with a 17-yard header from Gyan two minutes later drawing a diving save from Howard.

By the time Ghana’s captain forced a 64th minute block from Geoff Cameron, the effects of Besler’s loss were clear. The U.S. defense, particularly after the introduction of Ghana’s Kevin-Prince Boateng, had lost control.

In the 82nd minute, Ghana’s work paid off when Gyan dragged Cameron away from goal to create a chance for Ayew. Laying the ball off for the Marseille attacker, Gyan created space between the U.S. center backs for the one-time shot, with Howard beat inside his right post for the late equalizer.

Four minutes later, the U.S. had restored its lead, with two substitutes delivering victory in the sauna of Natal. Off a corner from the right, Graham Zusi’s out-swinging ball found Brooks at the edge of the six-yard box, with the Hertha Berlin defender heading down and into the Ghanaian goal to deliver full points.

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When the ball reached the back of Kwarasey’s net, the fight left the Ghanaians. Lifted to its crest four minutes earlier, the team that’d vanquished the Americans in Nuremberg and Rustenburg had seen the tables turn, with a U.S. side they’d expected to beat landing the final blow. Not only was Ghana’s mastery of the Americans over, but the Black Stars had lost suffered a major blow to their knockout round hopes.

The U.S., on the other hand, sit even with Germany at the top, and although Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal await, the players can take a moment to savor a moment their predecessors could not. A nemesis has been fallen, and in the process, the U.S. may have laid the groundwork to improve on its 2006 and 2010 results.

Lineups:

Ghana: Kwarasey; Opare, Mensah, Boye, Asamoah; Rabiu (Essien 71′), Atsu (Adomah 78′), Muntari, J. Ayew (Boateng 59′); Gyan, A. Ayew

Goals: A. Ayew 82′

United States: Howard, Johnson, Cameron, Besler (Brooks 46′), Beasley, Beckerman, Jones, Bradley, Bedoya (Zusi 77′), Dempsey, Altidore (Johannsson 23′)

Goals: Dempsey 1′, Brooks 86′