“We face neither East nor West,” said Kwame Nkrumah. “We face forward.” Ghana’s first president may have been talking of his country’s political trajectory as it stood on the cusp of independence, but his words from 1957 were turned on their head in the very first minute of Ghana’s game against the United States on Monday. Backward, backward, backward Ghana ran, and frantically…toward its own endangered goal. The newly empowered men pressing forward with purpose, looking neither East nor West, were American.
DaMarcus Beasley slipped down the left flank, tapping the ball to Jermaine Jones, who slotted it through to Clint Dempsey, a veteran playing in his third World Cup. Dempsey, whose nose would be broken by a flailing Ghanaian leg 32 minutes later—but who’d come back valiantly onto the pitch after stuffing some cotton wool up his nostrils—feinted his way past two defenders and scored low to the left of a diving, possibly indignant ’keeper. The official clock showed 34 seconds, making it the fastest goal scored by the U.S. in a World Cup game and the sixth-fastest by anyone in cup history.
As Ghana woke up to the horror of having conceded so much so quickly to a team it believed was inferior, the game took on a furious pace. Jozy Altidore, America’s most threatening striker, dropped to the ground as if shot by a sniper. Clutching his hamstring, he was stretchered off. The heat took its toll, as did the humidity, and it became clear, as the game went deeper into the first half, that Ghana’s players were stronger, fitter, faster.
But were they sharper in front of the goal? On and on Ghana pressed, through Mohammed Rabiu, Jordan Ayew, and the peerless Asamoah Gyan, but rarely can so much sowing have yielded so little fruit. Even as they wilted in the heat—visibly so in the case of Alejandro Bedoya, who played like a prince—the American players hung on by their fingertips, leaving spectators marveling at their courage. (Those watching could be forgiven for wondering, also, if there was something wrong with coach Jürgen Klinsmann’s conditioning methods.)
This was a madcap game, the ball hurtling from end to end, chased by tired legs of every hue. In the 82nd minute, as if foreordained, André Ayew broke American hearts, barreling the ball past ’keeper Tim Howard after being fed a deadly little back-heeled pass by Gyan. Was this the end for Team USA? The commentators on ESPN and Univision thought so; and the bloggers and tweeters thoughts so, too. But three minutes later, off a corner conceded carelessly by a Ghanaian defender, John Brooks (yet another gift to the American game produced by a German mother and an American serviceman father) nodded in a goal off a perfectly floated kick—the first goal scored by a U.S. substitute in any World Cup.
Was this the finest U.S. win in a World Cup? I would venture so. The victory in 1950 over England is precious, but in the way a unicorn might be: to be regarded wide-eyed, and scarcely believed. The 3-2 win over Portugal in 2002 was mighty fine, too. But what made Monday’s win so special was that it came against Ghana, the team’s nemesis in the last two cups; in conditions so testing that the players’ health was put at risk; in a game with 10 minutes (five before halftime, five before the final whistle) added on, and played for the most part without the best striker (Altidore).
The win also stands out because the U.S. is no longer everyone’s soccer underdog. America expects results from this team. And on a long night where its spirit and heart were stretched to the limit, this team delivered a win to savor.