World Cup rookie John Brooks could barely pull himself off the pitch. The emotion of what he'd just done, heading home the game-winner to beat Ghana, left his face buried in the grass.

It was only his fifth international appearance for the men's national team. The defenseman wasn't supposed to be in Brazil, if you ask most soccer experts. He definitely wasn't supposed to be a factor, just get experience for America's real run at the World Cup in 2018.

Yet, he wound up the hero. The youth movement came through.

National team coach Jurgen Klinsmann took a lot of heat for going young, leaving Landon Donovan off the team in favor of inexperienced players who will be the future of American soccer.

And then Jozy Altidore was knocked out with a strained left hamstring, making most Americans start really missing Donovan.

But after the first of three group matches, Klinsmann came up gold. OK, maybe silver.

It was a nerve-wracking match, an unimpressive performance. The U.S. was outplayed by Ghana, spending most of the match on the ropes after Clint Dempsey's goal in the first minute. Ghana had 21 shots on goal to the American's eight.

But they hung on for dear life. And even after Ghana eventually tied the match, the U.S. mustered another surge.

The same guy who warned us not to expect the U.S. to win the World Cup wound up looking like the savvy coach who's known what he's doing all along.


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"We have a great spirit," Klinsmann said in post-match interviews. "The U.S. team always has a great spirit and fighting to the last second. ... It was a grind. But it was a wonderful win at the end of the day."

The result is three points, which is huge because this match was the most likely for the U.S. to win. They'll get a wounded animal in Portugal on Sunday before finishing group play against Germany, a World Cup favorite.

Beating Portugal would get the U.S. to the knockout rounds. A tie puts them in good position to move on. And it's all possible because Klinsmann's decisions panned out Monday, albeit in excruciating fashion.

Several of the premiere players on the team struggled or got hurt. Midfielder Michael Bradley bordered on awful. Dempsey wasn't the same after he broke his nose on a Ghanaian shin. Defender DaMarcus Beasley, the first US player to appear in four World Cups, looked every the old head until a second-half surge.

"Sometimes it hurts you when you score early because the other team tries to push the game," Dempsey said afterward. "You find yourselves in a defensive shape. And then we struggled to keep the ball. We gave it away too easily, made ourselves have to run a little bit more. At the end of the day, we showed a lot of character and grinded out a result."

That thrust Klinsmann's youngsters into action. Aron Johannsson, the fill-in for Altidore, looked in over his head out there. Midfielder Alejandro Bedoya, and defenders Matt Besler and Geoff Cameron, they were pivotal in keeping the relentless athletes of Ghana at bay for most of the game. And two of Klinsmann's substitutes factored into the deciding goal.

On a rare opportunity for the U.S., sub Graham Zusi zipped a well-placed corner kick. And Brooks was there for the finish, perfectly bouncing it through the box and past the keeper.

Four minutes after they squandered the lead, the most unlikely player on the field put the U.S. back on top.

The improbability of his goal was illustrated as Brooks ran around overwhelmed, emotional. In that moment, it was Klinsmann might end up getting the best of both worlds: a respectable showing in the World Cup and vital experience for the youth movement.

Read Marcus Thompson II's blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/thompson. Contact him at mthomps2@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/ThompsonScribe.