NATAL, Brazil -- Two nights before the United States played Ghana, center-back John Brooks had a dream. It was the 88th minute, and he scored to win the game.
Turns out it was less a dream than a premonition. On Monday evening here against the Black Stars, in the United States' opening match of the 2014 World Cup, the 21-year-old German-American rose into the air in the 86th minute and became the unlikeliest hero in an unlikely victory. Brooks headed home a goal off a Graham Zusi corner kick that stood up to beat the Black Stars 2-1.
"It's unbelievable," Brooks said after it was over. "It's a great moment for me."
It's also a moment few could have seen coming a month ago. Brooks, a rookie Bundesliga player with hometown team Hertha Berlin last season, was regarded by most as a long shot to make the U.S. team. The imposing 6-foot-4 lefty's talent and physical tools were obvious, but he was coming off a mixed debut season as an irregular starter and sometimes inconsistent performer in Germany's vaunted top-flight.
He was included on U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann 30-man training camp roster, but few expected him to be standing when Klinsmann whittled it down to the 23 lucky souls who would travel to this summer's tournament in Brazil. But Klinsmann knew what he had. And when he trimmed his list on May 22, Brooks had survived the cut.
"We saw very early that his passing is amazing, he's very calm for his age, and obviously strong in the air because he's so tall," the U.S. boss said following Monday's match. He also noted the youngster's superior positioning and penchant for avoiding fouls.
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"Now we had to figure out is he ready for such a big thing like a World Cup already, or does it maybe take another year or two in his development. We had the feeling, and I talked many times to his coach at his club and the sporting director there, we had the feeling he's ready for this."
Still, Brooks was never supposed to get onto the field against Ghana. But after starter Matt Besler felt tightness in his right hamstring shortly before halftime, Klinsmann didn't hesitate to make the switch. His first touch didn't go well, as an attempted clearance went straight into the path of star Ghana striker Asamoah Gyan.
"The first few moments," Brooks said, "I was very nervous."
He settled down quickly, though, helping keep the Americans, who led on Clint Dempsey's early goal, from letting the match slip away.
"Defensively I thought he was good," keeper Tim Howard said. "He plays his lines well, had some big clearances. When we needed him to be composed on the ball, he was."
Midfielder Michael Bradley also came away impressed.
"That's not an easy situation for him to come on at halftime in those circumstances," Bradley said. "But I think you saw that he stepped right in and didn't miss a beat, found the game right away was calm and composed and read things, and was able to slip some good balls into the midfield. And we know one of his strengths is his ability to get on the end of set pieces."
That was plain for all to see four minutes after Ghana's 82nd-minute equalizer, when he lost his mark and got on the end of Zusi's corner.
It probably won't be the last we see of him this month. With Besler's status uncertain for Sunday's contest against Portugal, Brooks could get a full 90 minutes to show what he's got. But that's a story for another day. On this night, one he will surely remember for the rest of his life, the big defender insisted he wasn't looking that far ahead.
"It's a special moment for the boy," Klinsmann said.
In fact, it was almost like a dream.
Up next for the United States? Portugal in Manaus, 6 p.m. ET on Sunday.