Coming into the World Cup, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann was quoted in several periodicals, saying that he wanted to change the USA's style of play to a more "American" style. "American nature is to take the game to our opponents," he told the Wall Street Journal. "We don't want to just react to them."
Perhaps not, but against Ghana on Monday night, the USA played the way that American teams usually play: mostly on defense, and with only a vague sense of how to get the ball to a teammate, yet with an against-the-odds, never-say-die attitude. More than anything, it's that attitude that has infected the team's fans with a sense of optimistic enthusiasm that is, perhaps, the most American thing of all.
Few American fans have any real illusions about the team's talent level, but most of them have grown up with a USA team that exceeds all expectations, that qualifies for Italy '90 against the odds, and beats Colombia 2-1 in '94, and leads Portugal, mighty Portugal, 3-0 in the first half and hangs on for a win in '02, and comes back from 2-0 down and dead and buried in '10 against Slovenia, and scores in stoppage time against Algeria to go through the same year. This is the USA we learned to love.
Tonight, Clint Dempsey scored after 34 seconds, and thereafter, the USA deployed the bend-but-don't-break defense that has occasionally carried them through against better opponents. This involves an enormous amount of running and a lot of adversity to overcome, mostly, and there was plenty of adversity.
Jozy Altidore pulled his hamstring early and was carted off. Matt Besler did the same and limped off at halftime. Alejandro Bedoya limped through most of the second half, before finally being replaced. And in their place came Aron Johannsson, John Brooks, and Graham Zusi - World Cup novices, all, and Brooks and Johannsson barely out of the youth game, to boot.
Johannsson disappeared for most of the rest of the game. Brooks settled down eventually, but at the beginning, appeared set for one of the classic defensive blunders that so plagued the Americans at the last World Cup. And meanwhile, everything else was going wrong; Dempsey got booted in the face and bled everywhere, while American talisman Michael Bradley developed a strong case of Cherundulitis, a terrible condition, the main symptom of which was every pass he attempted landing twenty yards behind or beyond his target, and occasionally in the tenth row of the stands.
By the second half, I was counting American passes to see how many they could string together; I gave up, discouraged, after the team seldom got beyond two. Ghana ended the night with nearly 60% of the possession and with 21 shots, most of which thankfully sailed high and wide, or were stopped by Tim Howard.
When Andre Ayew scored in the 82nd minute to level the game at 1-1, though, it felt like the floodgates opening. The USA, tired from chasing the ball all night, appeared ready to sag defensively; ESPN commentators Taylor Twellman and Ian Darke began to openly sandbag from the commentary box. "A draw's not a bad result," cried Twellman, desperately hoping that the USA could somehow hang on to a point, knowing that they needed at least one to stay in competition for a place in the knockout round.
And then, the substitutes made their presence felt, if for a moment. Johannsson, with the ball at the edge of the Ghanian penalty area, attempted to find right back Fabian Johnson rushing around the edge of the Ghana defense. Johannsson weighted his pass too strongly, but Johnson - attacking after being pinned back by Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan for most of the night - managed to hook his foot around a defender at the end line to challenge for the ball, and in the confusion, the Ghanian defender ran the ball out for a corner.
It was Zusi who took it. And it was Brooks who found it with his head, flicked it downwards to the center of the goal. Brooks, the 21-year-old, born and raised in Berlin, lumped in with Julian Green by many as a scholarship player, his inclusion geared for the 2018 World Cup, unlikely to see the field in Brazil, merely one of Klinsmann's German-American favorite sons, primed for the future.
The ball ricocheted off the turf and into the top of the net, and America let loose a joyful, primal scream.
This, then, is Klinsmann's America: an Icelander passing to a Munich native, who wins a corner that the American places perfectly on the head of Berlin's favorite son. And the red, white, and blue all go crazy.
There will be other nights for American soccer; Sunday against Portugal, and next Thursday against Germany, for two. There will still be time Klinsmann's critics to come to the fore, and time for American soccer to adopt their coach's vision, or fail trying.
For this night, though, it's probably best to let the thousands of American fans in the stands have their say, and to use the words of the chant that they repeated, incessantly, throughout the game, the words of optimism in the face of looming disaster that are the most American of all.
I believe that we will win.