The 23-year-old Hertha Berlin center back is coming of age after struggling a summer ago at the Gold Cup.
PHILADELPHIA—John Brooks was born in Berlin and has lived there all of his 23 years. He’s spent the past decade at his hometown club, Hertha BSC, and in January he signed a new contract lasting until the summer of 2019. But he’s no homebody.
Homebodies don’t feel so drawn to cultures and places so far away. They don’t get so comfortable, so quickly, in new environments. And they don’t dream of representing a country that isn’t entirely their own. Brooks has a map of Germany tattooed on his left arm and a map of Illinois on his right. His father is from Chicago, and that connection to the U.S. was a powerful force in Brooks’s life long before he scored that magical goal against Ghana at the 2014 World Cup.
As a child, Brooks would meet his best friend, Jerome Kiesewetter, at a Berlin park, where they’d play soccer and imagine wearing the red, white and blue instead of Germany’s weiß und schwarz.
“We always said when we were big, we want to play for the U.S. team,” Brooks told SI.com. “We liked everything about it. We just felt American, even when we were in Berlin.”
It’s not easy to imagine a time when Brooks wasn’t big. Broad shouldered and standing an imposing 6-4, he looks like a center back designed in a laboratory. But he wasn’t, of course, and his learning curve has been all too human. Last summer was his first opportunity to anchor the U.S. defense at a major tournament.
Brooks had started only 11 international matches when the 2015 CONCACAF Gold Cup kicked off, but coach Jurgen Klinsmann declared the rising Hertha star and Club América’s Ventura Alvarado ready for the responsibility.
The U.S. attack struggled, intensifying the spotlight on Brooks’s mistakes. There were two in the knockout rounds, and they helped consign the Americans to fourth place.
“It wasn’t easy, the whole tournament. But for me it was good to learn,” Brooks said shortly thereafter. “It was a new competition—a new type of soccer. It was very tough games, very hard games and I took a lot out of it.”
A year later, on the eve of Saturday’s do-or-die Copa América Centenario game against Paraguay, Brooks told SI.com that the welcoming and supportive atmosphere inside the U.S. locker room, not to mention the manager’s persistent faith, helped turn the national team into another piece of his extended American family.
“In the past, of course you felt a little pressure. I was new. I had to prove myself,” Brooks said. “But the coach took the pressure from me, and I think now I found my spot. I don’t feel any pressure and I just feel comfortable around the team. Everybody’s nice—the staff, everybody on the team. So it’s just like a family. It’s nice to be here.”
Brooks plays like he’s increasingly at home with Hertha and the U.S. When healthy, he was a key contributor to his club’s seventh-place finish and qualification for next season’s Europa League. Hertha posted nine shutouts in Brooks’s 20 Bundesliga starts compared to only four in the 14 remaining games. And he’s been in imperious form for the U.S. His positioning, ability to anticipate passes, sound decision making and dominance in the air has been critical as the Americans have yielded only three goals during this five-game stretch (and only one from open play).
“It’s been a couple years that he’s gone through this. He was a young kid before. You’ve seen the progress and the experience he’s had over in Germany. This year’s been a fantastic year for him and I think he’s just showing his true caliber,” said Geoff Cameron, Brooks’s partner in central defense.
“He’s got a lot of potential and the good thing is he’s humble and he’s quiet and he’s eager to play and to learn,” Cameron added. “He’s got a really, really bright future. I enjoy playing alongside of him. There are times where I use my strength and my speed to cut down a pass and I don’t really have to do that as much because he’s got the speed and he’s got the strength. He’s powerful. He’s got a lot of ability and a skill set that a lot of people should admire. For me its great to play alongside a guy like that.”
Midfielder Jermaine Jones wasn’t as interested in Brooks’s trajectory. Asked Thursday what he thought of the defender’s progress, Jones said, “He’s old enough and he plays on a high level in the Bundesliga so he knows how to handle all this stuff.”
Brooks laughed Friday when his teammates’ comments were shared.
“A little bit of both are right, of course,” Brooks said. “Now I’m starting in the Bundesliga. I started almost every game when I was not injured so of course I learned a lot and it helped me. But I’m still a young player and I still see a lot of what the experienced players do and take it in for me. So I think I have both a little bit.”
The key is playing time. His potential got him started, faith in his promise kept him going and now performance has made him a linchpin for club and country. Any future the U.S. has at this Copa América will be thanks in part to Brooks and an increasingly cohesive back four. Inside of a year, he’s become a player who can lay the foundation for a long tournament run.
“Everybody needs games,” he said. “And now I’ve had a lot of games, a lot of different type of opponents and of course you get into a feeling where, O.K., now you don’t have to step out or now you have to step out. I think I’m also at an age where I’m not like young-young, with no experience. I’ve had a lot of games in the Bundesliga, a couple of games here and I feel more comfortable with everything.
“It’s perfect, perfect for a young player when you know you’re allowed to do mistakes,” he continued. “Not everything is perfect. Not every game will go the perfect way. But you know and you feel you’re allowed to do it. It’s way better than to feel pressure the whole time.”
Comfort does not lead to complacency, at least for Brooks. He’s flourished at Hertha despite family and familiarity and he intends to do the same for the U.S. He said he’s energized by the travel that grinds others down. He's played in countries he never imagined visiting and has already been to more of the U.S. than many who were born here. Last weekend, he saw his father’s hometown for the first time in memory and helped lead the Americans to a 4-0 rout of Costa Rica at Soldier Field.
“Unbelievable city. Unbelievable! It’s nice,” he said of Chicago.
Brooks is a Berliner-American, and time doesn’t define the depth of his connection. That’s been more than apparent this summer, as he’s emerged as someone who may help determine the national team’s defensive destiny for a decade.
“Of course it’s always nice to be at home, play for my home team,” he said of his “perfect situation” in the German capital.
“I always wanted to play for Hertha in our home stadium in front of my friends and family,” he continued. “This dream became true and now it’s for me its a perfect situation. But still, I’m not afraid to leave home. I’m not like ‘Berlin, Berlin’. I’m open for everything. Of course, these trips [to the U.S.], the other half of my family is from America so its always nice to be here to see where my other half is from.”