Talk about a purging of the demons. The U.S., booted by Ghana from the previous two World Cups, finally beat their unlikely nemesis last night, winning 2-1 to silence their critics and move one step closer to advancing out of the Group of Death. But it wasn't just a win. It was a dramatic roller-coaster ride that culminated in a last-second screamer, the kind of victory that left you thinking "Right, this just might happen ..."
Oh, and, of course, "USA! USA! USA!!!!!!"
The Americans led from 29th second on a slick bit of play that ended with Clint Dempsey ricocheting a low shot off the far goal post and into the back of the net (cue eruptions from Anchorage to Alabama.) The U.S. looked threatening for the next couple of minutes before fading, sadly, into a long slog of meager possession and abject passing, in the middle of which Jozy Altidore got stretchered off after suffering what looked to be a campaign-ending hamstring injury.
The second half didn't offer much variation on the script, with Ghana dominating possession and looking the likelier team to score, which is precisely what happened 82 minutes in. You could feel America sag — but just for four tense minutes, because, goddamn, wouldn't you know it: Graham Zusi curled in a gorgeous corner kick, and it was headed in by John Brooks. Who? Right: John Brooks, a defender and insta-hero making his first competitive appearance for the U.S. (tellingly, it kinda looked like he passed out after scoring.)
U.S. manager Jürgen Klinsmann made good work of a tough first assignment: both Zusi and Brooks, who combined for the winning goal, were second half subs; Brooks on at halftime for the injured Matt Besler, and Zusi on later for Alejandro Bedoya, who also limped off. (Aron Johannsson, who came on for Altidore in the first half, however, never managed to make an impression.)
This could spell trouble. If Altidore blew out his hamstring as it appeared, he's done for the tournament, leaving the U.S. light on attacking options. Dempsey, the side's other main forward, went through the wars last night too, playing most of the match with what looked like a broken nose. Besler was hooked at halftime, another possible hamstring injury.
So, though the victory came at a huge cost, its importance can't be understated. The U.S. sits second in the so-called Group of Death behind the German juggernaut. Portugal exposed itself yesterday as a side that could be much easier pickings than previously imagined after it, depending on your perspective, either capitulated or surrendered or imploded or just plain shat itself in losing 4-0 to Germany. Let us not forget, also, the red card Pepe picked up for stupidly head-butting Thomas Müller. This leaves Portugal without its star center back when it faces the U.S. on Sunday in Manaus.
But make no mistake — Portugal will not be an easy match. Ghana were tough, and Portugal have an even nastier pedigree (see: Cristiano Ronaldo). Following their embarrassment at the hands of Germany, they'll be out for blood. With what looks to be side depleted by cruel early injuries, the U.S. has a tricky road ahead. And though last night's match wasn't the most inspiring based on the run of play, if you can block out all but the first minute and the last five minutes … Hell, this'll be a piece of cake, right?