NATAL, Brazil — It's all starting to come together.
The United States' route out of World Cup group play, which looked muddled and confused Monday morning, had become as clean as Michael Bradley's bald head by Monday evening after the American's physical 2-1 victory over Ghana and Germany's 4-0 pummeling of Portugal in Salvador.
The U.S. goals came from Clint Dempsey in the opening 30 seconds — the fastest goal by an American in World Cup history — and John Brooks in the 86th minute, the first World Cup score by a U.S. substitute.
“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 with the U.S. seeing two players go out with injuries and other go 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 with a left hamstring injury midway through the first half. He was in tears as he went to the locker room on a stretcher.
Altidore will be examined Tuesday in Sao Paulo. But given that he has injured the same hamstring three times in the last four years, he might 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 he said afterward 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.
“We could see in every training session that (he's) a very, very good talent,” Klinsmann said of Brooks, 21, who was born and raised in Germany as the son of a U.S. serviceman from Chicago. “No problem for me at all to make (that) decision.”
Dempsey's goal at the 30-second mark was the fifth-fastest in World Cup history. Seconds after the opening whistle, he 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 Andre 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 with eight minutes left.
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.”
It was Brooks, one of the three “Klinsigarteners” — players 21 or younger who have played five or fewer games for the U.S. — who got it back on a set piece.
Graham Zusi sent a corner to the front of the net that he appeared to have aimed at Cameron. It was a hair long, but a charging Brooks, running in behind Cameron, got his head on it and bounced it in from outside the 6-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 won 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 the former Monday and appear to have a good chance at the latter when they meet an even more bruised-and-battered Portuguese team Sunday in Manaus.
Portugal lost three starters Monday — one to a red card and two to injury.
Pepe, the team'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, and defender Fabio Coentrao was helped off in the second half with an apparent groin injury. Their status for Sunday is uncertain, as is Besler's.
“It's just a good feeling to have the first three points,” Klinsmann said.
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