The Eternal Goal: Witnessing the Moment that Made Soccer Finally (and still) Cool in America

Soccer fever is here again! As I watch the first few matches kick off in Russia on my TV at home, I can’t help but reflect on the lifelong memories from traveling around Brazil during the last World Cup in 2014. From massive beachside watch parties, to intimate apartment buildings, to Amazon River boats, and even attending a few matches in person, the game was all consuming everywhere and to everyone you met. I originally wrote this article three years ago to celebrate what I believed to be the beginning of true soccer passion in the United States. While many of us are still depressed at the fact that the US failed to qualify for this year’s World Cup, I’m republishing this article to take us back to that beautifully gut-wrenching run from four years ago and inspire others to travel to see your nation’s team put it all on the line on the world stage.

(Written in June, 2015. Reedited and published in June of 2018)

Prelude

It was around this time four years ago that I was part of a moment so unbelievably surreal that I still cannot fathom whether it actually happened or not, and it has changed my life.

It occurred during a soccer match.

I call it soccer as any American would. I guess that is what this story is essentially about: America. Not about trade, tweets, or Trump, rather something far more significant: The World Cup. Every four years, this month long war of nations occurs on a field of grass with a ball and two nets.

Something new has been happening in the US in recent years. Since the end of the 2010 World Cup in which the USMNT (United States Men’s National Team) lost in extra time to Ghana in the first elimination round, we had been left wanting more.

There was just something about Landon Donovan’s goal against Algeria that year that has seemingly lit a spark for America’s love for her national team. It might not have been quite the love for the sport at first, but for the universal idea of never giving up, putting your heart on the line, and quite simply, to believe in something greater than yourself. As Donovan was getting mauled by his teammates in celebration, I recall screaming at the tv and running around the house like an ape. That goal added an unstoppable momentum to a dream that would lead me to a crazy series of events and, four years later, land me in the Arena das Dunas in the northeastern resort town of Natal, Brazil on the 16th of June, watching the United States take on Ghana again in their opening match of the 2014 World Cup. It was in fact another goal during this match that I will remember for the rest of my life.

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In the 86th minute of their opening match in the 2014 World Cup, John Brooks captured America’s hearts forever. 

June 16th, 2014


With the 2014 World Cup already underway in Brazil, the United States national team was facing perhaps the highest expectations to succeed than any other time in their history. The hiring of the German coach, Jurgen Klinsmann, had proven a great success. The team had won more games than any previous coach up to that point. They had qualified for the World Cup with ease and it was finally time to look towards Brazil. But once the drawing raffle placed the US in a group featuring Germany, Portugal, and Ghana, the pressure to make it out of the group was ramped up even more. The schedule was made and the team would play Ghana in Natal for the first game of group play.

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Rowdy team USA fans swell out of the pizza restaurant and close the streets just blocks away from the Arena Das Dunas in Natal.

It seemed to be stacked against them. The team that knocked them out in both 2006 and 2010 would be the first match against Klinsmann’s revamped American squad. Yet in this group, Ghana were seen as the lesser team compared with European powerhouses Portugal and Germany. For this reason, if the US had any chance to make it out of this group and tell the world that soccer was here to stay, then they must beat Ghana. Klinsmann called it “a final in the first match.”

Not a loss.

Not a draw.

We had to win…

Our plane touched down on the tarmac at 4am in hot and humid Natal. Stoked that we got put on the flight via standby instead of having to sleep on the floor at the airport in São Paulo, my brother and I headed to our hotel and attempted to get some sleep before heading over to the USA pregame party.

We woke up a few hours later, put on our jerseys and American flag bandanas, and hopped in a cab to central Natal. A pizza restaurant near the stadium was the venue chosen by the unofficial fan club of the US national team, the American Outlaws, to be the epicenter of the pregame. Arriving rather early, we were excited to see that about a hundred US supporters were already standing around the restaurant, greeting the new arrivals. In a short time, this crowd would swell into the thousands. The Yanks had arrived by force, and we made our presence known. All forms of alcohol within a mile radius were bought and consumed. Restaurants had lines out the door. The Outlaws had set up a private event for their members inside the pizza place of which us plebs on the outside were denied access. However the better place to be was quickly established as thousands of fans, decked out in the Stars and Stripes, gathered with us outside of the restaurant patio. The cheering began and so did the singing. After a few hours of drinking, flag waving, chanting, and more drinking, a member of the Outlaws stood on top of a table, raised his index finger to the crowd, and twirled it around in a circular fashion: the universal sign that it was “go-time”. It was time to march.

The amount of Americans who showed up in Natal was impressive. Everyone was shocked. The beautiful host residents of Brazil, the other foreigners, even the Americans themselves were surprised that so many of us had turned up. “I can’t believe I’m actually here” was a very common phrase you’d overhear. As the crowd rounded the corner onto Rua Morais Navarro, the Arena das Dunas came into view. At the same time, we had started singing the Star Spangled Banner (again). Flags and scarves were raised into the air, and we shouted. This is when the chronic chills set in for the remainder of the evening. As we neared the stadium entrance, I took a look behind me at the sea of now ten thousand strong US jerseys, flags, and scarves. The invasion was complete. The fans had turned up in record amounts. The support was there, but none of us had to actually play on the field against Ghana. That was for US captain Clint Dempsey and his rag tag group of believers to handle.

Inside the Arena das Dunas (Arena of the Dunes), we were in complete awe at the beauty of this quickly put together stadium. The silver wavy roof looked just like, well, the sand dunes that are prevalent in this region of Brazil. We were seated in the front of the second deck behind one of the goals, giving is a great view of the entire field.

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Singing the National Anthem as we march towards the Arena das Dunas in Natal.

As the on field warm-ups came to a close and the players headed into their respective locker rooms. The nerves started to become nearly uncontrollable. No Superbowl. No Game 7. Nothing. Nothing comes remotely close to the amount of nervous anxiety that is felt before your nation’s World Cup game. The hype had begun not just a few months, but four years ago. The hiring of a new coach. The ups and downs of international friendlies. Qualifying. Getting placed in a Group of Death. The international media downplaying the chances of this revamped team. After all the progress with this team over the last four years, it all comes down to this game.

We must win.

The stadium PA blares the FIFA introduction music, and the pre-match parade begins. American and Ghanaian flags are stretched and presented at midfield, the two teams follow suit and walk onto the pitch. The US in their popsicle pattern red white and blue kits, Ghana in all white. The crowd begins to cheer even louder. We eventually quiet down, and the announcer calls to play each country’s respective national anthem.

I will tell you something about national anthems. We Americans sing ours a lot. Be it a professional ballgame or your three-year-old’s preschool graduation, the country is to be honored and her song is to be sung. Like it or not, that’s what happens. You get a little patriotic, and it’s cool. But singing your country’s national anthem in Brazil during the most famous international sporting event on the planet merits a  completely different level of patriotism. It will give you the most spine ratcheting chills, that you will either cry or need to see a chiropractor the next day.

I teared up, just a little bit.

After both anthems were played, it was time for the real deal. It all led to this. A must win for both teams. Revenge and legitimacy on the line for the Americans. Time to kickoff.  The 40 thousand fans in attendance are ready. The 8+ million tv viewers from all over the world are ready. The whistle blew and the match was finally underway.

Ghana had the kickoff and possession first, but after a few passes had lost the ball out of bounds 15 seconds into the match. Left back Demarcus Beasley tosses the ball to American captain, Clint Dempsey. After a few passes, Dempsey receives the ball at the 18 yard box, snakes past a Ghanaian defender, and pokes the ball with his left foot towards the far right post. The ball rolls ever closer to the net, the Ghanaian keeper dives, and the Americans hold there breath.

The side of the net ripples and Dempsey sprints towards the corner of the field as his teammates give chase.

GOOOOOOAL!

Just 30 seconds into the game, it was 1-0 USA. The stadium erupts into ecstasy. The Ghanaian section opposite the field from us is stunned. The replay is shown on the big screen and the image of the scorer, the nation’s captain, appears before the crowd. The stadium announcer, although speaking Portuguese said the name that everyone understood: “CLINT DEMPSEY!”

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The view from our seats in the Arena das Dunas. Photo taken just before the start of the game.

 

The Americans in the stadium, to put it simply, lose their collective shit. “1-0 already? Did that really just happen!” Such a high pressure game, and we get a goal within seconds. Confidence soared, U-S-A chants were rampant, and the world was stunned. This then begins the chant that was the theme for the US’ time spent during the World Cup, “I-Believe-That-We-Will-Win!

Ghana were unable to find much rhythm, and after a few chances later on, it was the US ahead 1-0 at halftime. But several injuries had struck the Americans when they had lost striker Jozy Altidore to a hamstring strain. Clint Dempsey took a shin guard to the face and was playing with a broken nose, and center back Matt Besler also had to be subbed out with a hamstring injury.

Besler was replaced by the half German, half American,  21-year-old John Anthony Brooks.

The early goal had provided a lot of confidence, but the American injuries and Ghana’s chances at the end of the half were more than enough for the gripping anxiety to ensue as we awaited the start of the second half. The players again returned to the field, the whistle blew, the match continued.

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American captain, Clint Dempsey, celebrating
after scoring a goal just seconds into the game.

And Ghana came out swinging.

The second half was greeted with barrage after barrage from the African team. The US were being simply out played and out run by the faster Ghanaians. Shots rained down at American keeper, Tim Howard, and he followed with save after save. The defense continued to hold, clearing the ball away, but the chances were getting closer to goal and more frequent.

The Americans began to grow desperate as the Ghanaians continued to control the ball. Wide open shots screamed off of posts, headers were placed just inches over the American net. The US responded with a few chances of their own, but none were too promising. Ghana’s continued attack had been winning the neutral Brazilians in attendance over to their side. The crowd ooo-ed and and cheered louder with every African possession. As the Americans on the field passed the ball around in fear, desperate to keep it away from the attacking team, us Americans in the stands grew quieter. Dempsey’s early goal had felt like years ago. Still, all we needed was to to hold on a little longer.

Now into the 83rd minute of the match, the US still clinging to their one goal lead, Ghana was again on the offensive. Midfielder Kwadwo Asamoah darted the ball from the left into the American 18 yard box. The pass was picked up by captain, Asamoah Gyan, who beautifully passed the ball off of his heel with one touch to the sprinting incoming forward, André Ayew. Ayew touches the ball one time and blasts it off of the outside of his left foot, a deceiving shot where the foot went to the right, but the ball rocketed to the left past the diving keeper, Howard. The back of the net rippled.

Ghana had equalized. 1-1.

The stadium went into a craze. Ayew beat his chest almost in anger and screamed at his country’s supporters behind the goal. Watching the replay later that evening, ESPN commentator, Ian Darke, had worded it beautifully,

“It was a superb goal to break American hearts.”

I recall feeling like a standing corpse, numb to what I was seeing and what I was hearing. I stared in shock. It felt like watching my house burn down. Some fans looked the same as me, others had rallied with U-S-A chants, but were quickly drowned out to the roar of the rest of the stadium when the announcer called the goal scorer Ayew’s name. Their best player, wearing their number 10 jersey, had scored an amazing goal and gave his country a chance. It appeared that after all the excitement before this match, the US looked to be walking away from this crucial game with only a one point draw. But by the way Ghana continued to attack after their goal, even this was starting to look doubtful. The pressure seemed to never stop, and it was giving me serious heart problems.

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Ghana’s André Ayew after scoring a sensational equalizer to bring the score to 1-1.

Within seconds, Ghana had recaptured possession and were pressing down the field yet again. An inbound cross was cleared by the United States. Then just two minutes after just tying the game, André Ayew again had the ball inside the US box. The crowd roared with anticipation as he closed in on the goal. My heart sank as he passed the ball towards the middle towards long time Ghanaian midfielder, Michael Essien. This was to be the dagger. I held my breath.

But there was no devastating second goal from Ghana. Dread-locked midfielder, Kyle Beckerman had defended the play beautifully, tying up Essien, and the shot never came. The ball was cleared out of bounds. Ghana again tried to press, but the US regained possession and drove to the other end of the field.

Then the Americans began to advance.

What started as a slow march down the field led to a throw in near the right corner in Ghana’s end of the field. Right Back, Fabian Johnson, threw the ball to Aaron Johaanson, who followed with a return pass back to Johnson as he ran into the opposing 18 yard box. Ever so slowly, the ball rolled towards the back line. Johnson was then bumped off by a Ghanaian defender, who barley tapped the ball with his ankle as it rolled just inches behind the line before stopping. The linesman raised his flag and singled to his right.

It was to be an American corner kick in the 86th minute.

The Ghanaians complained, but the call was accurate, and both teams began to assemble in front of the goal. US substitute Graham Zusi would be the one to take the kick. The corner would be taken on the same side of the field we were watching. Everyone was on their feet.  I spun my USA scarf over my head and shouted with a raspy voice that had been long gone before the match had started. An unpromising US possession had led to a Ghanaian mistake. This was the best chance the Americans had to steal a victory.

Sensing this, US coach Jurgen Klinsmann ordered even his Center Backs, Jeff Cameron and John Brooks into the box. As Zusi eyed up the ball and the players pushed and shoved for position in the box, the U-S-A chants were rampant in the Arena das Dunas once more. The American Outlaw section to our right was jumping up and down in nervous anticipation. The whistle blows, Zusi raises and drops his arm to signal the incoming volley, and sends the ball into the crowd of players…

Have you ever had a moment where something so unbelievably surreal happens, that it appears to you in slow motion? As if your brain is having a hard time processing all the information it’s receiving and it seems to lag like a slow computer? For what felt like less than a second, this is what I saw:

The ball crosses into the mixture of red and white shirts.

It then deflects off the head of a leaping red body.

It bounces once.

Ghana’s keeper dives.

The top of the net ripples.

The red body is seen sprinting away from the goal with both arms stretched into the sky.

It was the 21-year-old substitute, John Brooks, with a goal for the USA.

I had witnessed a few amazing events in sports. Walk off home runs. Overtime playoff wins. Buzzer beating shots. I had gotten pretty excited about those. But nothing as unconceivable as this moment. What made John Brooks’ goal against Ghana so surreal was that it seemed so incredibly improbable that not only was the stadium stunned into disbelief, but in that moment, even Brooks himself could no longer perceive between fantasy and reality.  One of the team’s youngest players, it was only his 5th national appearance, and he was nearly cut from the squad just weeks before. He would have never even played had starter, Matt Besler, avoided injury in the first half. The unlikeliest of players had just scored the most improbable goal in the closing minutes of the most high pressure match in US Soccer history.

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Center Back, John Brooks (left) and the world watch his header bounce into the net in the 87th minute of the match.

 

Brooks ran aimlessly with his arms in the air, stares into the sky, touches his face, looks to the ground, and slowly lies face-down in the corner of the field. The rest of the team catches up to congratulate him. Even after they had gone back to take their positions for the kickoff, Brooks was still lying there, shaking his head. It took the referee’s warning to get him back on his feet.

As the reality of what I had just witnessed began to sink in, I found myself three sections away from my seat, running around, beating my chest like a crazy person, and ruthlessly high-fiving every hand I saw. For me, it was everything happening at once: The belief in this nation’s national team, the amount of pregame hype before the game, the terrifying 90+ minute emotional roller coaster of a do-or-die match, the frustration at the Brazilians who seemingly switched support mid-game, the non-stop Ghanaian assault and Ayew’s heartbreaking equalizer, the constant national and international doubt that soccer will ever take off in America. And finally, it was the childhood dream of attending this event in Brazil coming true that all collided simultaneously when Brooks headed the ball into the goal. In that moment, it was all worth it.

For the first time in my life, I had completely lost all physical and emotional control of myself. My voice was hoarse but I would not stop shouting. I clutched the patch of my replica US jersey in my left hand as if I had just found a winning lottery ticket. I flung my scarf around like a rag doll. I eventually ran into my brother somewhere in the madness and we hugged it out. What finally brought me back to my seat was realizing that the game had already started up again. By this point, the Americans in the bleachers had been drowning the stadium out, leaping up and down and singing the melody to Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes over and over again.

As the 90th minute drew to a close, the pure happiness had turned back into torture as the sideline official signaled for five additional minutes of stoppage time. Gone was the ecstasy of stealing the lead with an amazing goal. The USA now needed to hold on. Ghana would yield a few more scoring chances, including a corner kick of their own. Each chance was more gut wrenching than the last, but the US defended well. The five minutes of stoppage time one could compare to five years imprisoned in Guantanamo. Pure, relentless, torture.

But there was no second heart-shattering Ghanaian equalizer. As the US cleared the ball away one last time, the ref’s whistle sounded. Both Americans on and off the field had lost their minds once again, and the revenge was complete. The United States never gave up and had completely stolen a victory in the most dramatic way possible. One goal in the very beginning, another at the very end. Ghana had outrun and out possessed the US, but it was John Brooks who had come off the bench and shocked the world.

Final Score: 2-1 USA.

The victory provided a much needed three points in this Group-of-Death, and it would prove ever more valuable. A devastating draw to Portugal and a close loss to Germany would be just enough for the Americans to make it out of the Group of Death. And even though the team would lose to Belgium in extra time in the first elimination round, the damage had already been done: We were in love with this sport and our team.

A team that plays with so much heart, never gives up, and always provides a dramatic ending, what is there not to love? As I continued to travel around Brazil during the Cup, I received countless praises about the team’s performance from people all over the world. Never in my life did I think I would hear anyone living outside of the US praising our national soccer team. But that is what this moment had done. My country would not convert into some euro-style soccer nation overnight, but watching the reactions to Brooks’ late goal around the world, it was evident that football in America was here to stay.

Err. I meant soccer.

And I will never forget bearing witness to the moment that stole our hearts:

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