NATAL, Brazil — These are the stories that make the World Cup so great. A 21-year-old German-American named John Brooks has a dream two nights before his first World Cup game. Even though he’s a reserve defender, and defenders almost never get subbed, he dreams that he comes into the game and scores a goal in the 80th minute—a header on a corner kick—to win the U.S.’s World Cup opener against Ghana and end the U.S.’s eight-year-long Curse of the Black Stars.
After the dream, Brooks even tells some of his teammates about it. And lo and behold, it happens—all of it. His second-half entry after a Matt Besler injury. The corner kick. The header goal. The victory over Ghana. All he gets wrong is the minute, and considering the goal happened in the 86th minute, we’ll cut Brooks some slack.
“That was my first dream [like this],” a beaming Brooks said after the U.S.’s wild 2-1 win. “And hopefully not the last.”
Brooks’s goal celebration will forever be a part of the classic U.S. Soccer highlight reel. He appeared so surprised by what he had done that he ran in circles, looking up at the heavens, bewildered by what his body had just done. Then he fell face-first to the ground, overcome with joy.
Within minutes, some joker had changed Brooks’ Wikipedia page to reflect his exploits: “He is the greatest American since Abraham Lincoln.”
Brooks, who has family in Berlin and Chicago, was a longshot even to make the U.S. World Cup team when the pre-tournament camp started on May 14. But he beat out Clarence Goodson for a reserve spot that turned into a place on the field against Ghana when Besler, the rock of the U.S.’s back line, felt soreness in his right hamstring at halftime on Monday.
Brooks is Besler’s backup at left center back—Klinsmann said Omar González would have replaced Geoff Cameron at right center back—and he admitted he was nervous when he first came onto the field at the start of the second half. Consider: Brooks had never played in an official (non-friendly) game for the U.S. before Monday and became cap-tied with his appearance. Until he stepped onto the field here, in fact, Brooks still technically could have played for Germany.
“Not an easy situation for him, to come on at halftime in those circumstances,” said U.S. midfielder Michael Bradley. “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, was able to slip some good balls into the midfield. And look, we know where his strength lies: His ability to get on the end of set pieces both in attack and defense. He found a good little seam and his header was very good.”
There is still a lot of Germany in Brooks, who is more comfortable speaking German than English, but he answered questions gamely in English after the game (When asked his height, Brooks responded 6-foot-4, not the metric equivalent). As Klinsmann said afterward, he’s a work in progress.
“John showed his talent,” Klinsmann said. “Does he have a lot to still learn and grow? Yes. It’s just normal, but what better stage to do that than the World Cup?”
All things considered, Brooks’s shining moment is a vindication of sorts for Klinsmann’s decision to bring several young players to Brazil, including Julian Green (19), DeAndre Yedlin (20) and Brooks (21). Leaving Brooks’s goal aside, he played well defensively after a shaky first touch on the ball in the second half.
“He was rock solid,” said U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard. “Really good clearances and headers. When he got on the ball, he was composed. My job is as a young defender you can tell with him sometimes once the ball clears that’s when a defender has to be switched on. As a young player I did it myself as a goalkeeper. When the ball’s at the other end you can go off into dreamland.”
But that’s the thing with John Brooks, the latest U.S. folk hero. Going off into dreamland isn’t always a bad thing. In fact, those dreams can be downright prophetic.