61714_isi_johnsonfabian_usmnt061614107 John Todd/isiphotos.com
A Crucial Moment

Fabian Johnson's Tireless Effort Led to U.S. Victory

Clint Dempsey's early strike set the tone for Monday's thrilling U.S. - Ghana clash, and John Brooks late header dominated the headlines. But there was another play that proved to be just as important.
BY Brooke Tunstall Posted
June 17, 2014
8:25 AM
IT ALMOST GOT LOST in the excitement of Jonathan Brooks’ goal and the euphoria of a World Cup win over Ghana, but the corner kick that led to the United States game-winning strike almost didn’t happen.

Every color commentator, it seems, likes to claim that his or her sport is a game of inches. Against Ghana, Fabian Johnson reminded soccer fans how applicable that cliché can be in soccer.

For a player who came into the World Cup playing as well as any on the U.S. side, Johnson had a fairly quiet match and he isn’t without fault on Ghana’s goal as he let Andre Ayew get a step on him and that proved costly when Ayew collected Asamoah Gyan’s sublime backheel and beat Tim Howard near-post.

(It’s tempting to blame Howard for getting beaten near-post but most goalkeepers will tell you Howard played that situation correctly. Had Ayew hit the ball with his laces, as most elite shooters do in that situation, the ball goes to Howard’s left and he’s in the right position for a save. But Ayew hit it with the outside of his left foot and that caused the ball to curl to the near-post, to Howard’s right, and with the American already leaning the other way expecting a shot from the laces, there wasn’t much he could do. It happens, even to great ‘keepers like Howard.)

Back to the corner kick: Johnson didn’t make many dangerous runs into the attacking third against Ghana but just over three minutes after the Black Stars scored the equalizer, Johnson found himself pushing forward and he and Aron Johannsson tried to combine on a give-and-go that would have positioned Johnson for a cross into the box.

Johannsson’s pass, however, was too heavy and was clearly heading over the end line before Johnson could reach it. But the 26-year-old Munich native never gave up on the play, forcing Ghana defender Jonathan Mensah to try and shield Johnson off the ball, only to have the ball hit off Mensah’s ankle before trickling over the line.

Instead of a goal kick for Ghana, it was a corner kick for the United States. And then Graham Zusi whipped in a perfect corner that let Jonathan Brooks become America’s newest darling.

None of that happens if Johnson doesn’t channel his inner Al Pacino from Any Given Sunday and fights for that inch. This may be the most skilled unit the U.S. has ever brought to a World Cup but this is still a team that has to rely on fight and effort and camaraderie if it wants to advance. That inch, and the will to fight for it, was key to the U.S. salvaging the vital three points Monday night—something that is symbolized by Johnson’s effort against Mensah.

Brooke Tunstall is a veteran journalist who has covered Major League Soccer since its initial player dispersal draft. You can follow him on Twitter.

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