For all the emphasis on formations, tactics and philosophy since Juergen Klinsmann became United States coach, Monday’s 2-1 win over Ghana was earned by the traditional American soccer virtues of hard work, discipline and fighting spirit.
Forget the ‘midfield diamond’, it was sweat, bruises and guts that ended the U.S’s jinx with Ghana, who had eliminated them from the last two World Cups.
Plenty went wrong – the Americans lost two key players to injuries, had Clint Dempsey playing with a broken and bloodied nose and conceded an equalizer with eight minutes to go.
But four minutes later, defender John Brooks, forced into action after Matt Besler limped off at halftime, headed in the winner from a corner and German coach Klinsmann’s side hung on for the three points.
With Portugal and Germany next in a tough Group D, those three points were essential to any hope of progressing to the last 16 and it showed as the Americans celebrated wildly at the end.
The fulltime whistle had blown with the indefatigable Jermaine Jones charging alone with the ball into Ghana’s half and the German-born midfielder symbolized the entire display.
Jones won countless midfield challenges, in the air and on the ground, and covered every corner of the field with his defensive pressing and forward support.
The midfielder had set up Dempsey to open the scoring after 29 seconds giving the Americans a perfect start but things soon started to go wrong.
Jozy Altidore, the only orthodox target-man forward in the U.S. squad was carried off on a stretcher with a hamstring injury in the 23rd minute with Aron Johannsson thrust into the attack.
Dempsey then himself got a kick in the face that broke his nose - he said he was coughing up blood - and Besler ended the half gingerly nursing what looked like another hamstring problem.
It had been a first half played at high-speed with Ghana constantly looking to attack on the break and the Americans relying more on bursts forward than crafted attacks.
In place of Besler, Klinsmann turned to the 21-year-old Hertha Berlin defender Brooks for his fifth appearance, rather than the more experienced Omar Gonzalez and while that choice might have raised some eyebrows, it paid off.
Brooks not only got the goal but his physical presence at the back helped as the U.S. were put under intense pressure, the African side dominating after the break.
Kyle Beckerman and Alejandro Bedoya worked hard in the midfield along with a below-par Michael Bradley, who unusually was unable to stamp his authority on the game.
Without Bradley’s influence, the U.S. struggled to play the possession football that Klinsmann has urged of them.
But with Dempsey scrapping behind the hard-running Johannsson and Fabian Johnson and DaMarcus Beasley pounding up and down the flanks, the Americans were never going to lose for lack of effort.
Ghana’s equalizer was a beautifully constructed goal finished in style by Andre Ayew and could easily have deflated Klinsmann’s team but from a corner, Brooks broke free and headed in.
In place of celebration, Brooks simply looked in disbelief.
But the likes of Dempsey and Bradley have seen this before with the national team and this win will merely confirm their belief that there is a spirit in this side that can take them further than many expect.
To progress though, the U.S. will need more than self-belief and hard-work against Portugal and Germany.
The midfield will need to be more careful with possession, the attack will need to create more and the back-four be even tighter.
Klinsmann will no doubt be stressing those points in the coming days.
But it was evident from his exhilaration as he left the field that he was delighted to see the old-fashioned way can still get results.
(Reporting by Simon Evans; editing by Justin Palmer)