John Brooks is back from exile and ready to be more than a World Cup rando

It’s getting close to Christmas; give yourself a gift. Take yourself back to June, and relive this winner for the U.S. Men’s National Team against Ghana.

Still feels sweet right? A little surreal? Watching John Brooks, that seemingly random German-American kid who wasn’t supposed to make the roster — who didn’t even start the game — nod the ball down, find the back of the net, and beat the team that bounced us out of the last two World Cups. Six months later, that still feels throat-tinglingly amazing.

Brooks’ celebration was weird, an am-I-losing-my-goddamn-mind act that ended with his face buried in the grass. Later, we learned the read behind it. After all, what would you do if you dreamed of scoring a late headed winner in your first World Cup match, only to see it come true. But I like to watch it with fresh eyes, because in my world, the reaction makes more sense when you don’t know about the dream – when you assume Brooks, like us, had no clue what was to come.

But what if you were watching that moment with a little more context, as somebody for whom Brooks wasn’t such a rando? What if you went into that game not only with your national team baggage (Why can we not hold a lead? What is our problem with Ghana? Do you think, one day before I’m dead, that we’ll learn how to string five passes together for fuck’s sake?) but also with John Brooks baggage?

What if Brooks’ club, Hertha BSC, had become your obsession, and the club’s ability to frustrate, disappoint and torment had eclipsed even that of the national team itself? And what if Brooks, the club’s best defensive prospect in years, had finished the 2013-14 season so indifferently he was beginning to look like a bust?

Just thought I’d let you know where I’m coming from. For people like me, Brooks’ Ghana goal carried more that a little portion of “can this possibly be happening?” Next to all that tingly late goal goodness, there was also be a sense of “this is too good to be true.”

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Months have passed; it’s December now, and Brooks has yet to score another dramatic winner, though he did net a tidy opener against Eintracht Frankfurt on Wednesday. But all that’s beside the point, though. He’s not a goalscorer. He’s a center back, and over the past few weeks, he’s begun to play like a very good one – the kind of defender the U.S. will be able to lean on for a long time to come. Perhaps even a future captain.

Up until recently, this wasn’t a given; the 21-year-old’s season actually started poorly. In the first few matches, Brooks had played his way into head coach Jos Luhukay’s doghouse, finally being dropped from the matchday squad altogether for three straight games last month. Berlin tabloids began wondering if Brooks would be the umpteenth chapter in a story that had grown wearyingly familiar: the one about the highly touted Hertha academy product who couldn’t carve out a first team place in Berlin; the one about the future star that had to leave and find success elsewhere. See Kevin-Prince Boateng. See Ashkan Dejagah and Sejad Salihovic. See Jerome Boateng.

Luhukay was exasperated, but he wasn’t dumb. Fast, athletic 6-foot-4 defenders who are great with the ball might get busted down to the reserves, but they don’t get tossed aside, not before they get a second, third or even 14th chance to succeed. (Witness Joachim Löw’s attempts to bring the extremely raw VfB Stuttgart defender Antonio Rüdiger into the post-World Cup German national team fold. Had Brooks not declared for the U.S., it might well have been him instead.)

This time, the tough-love gambit worked. When Brooks was brought back from his three-game stint with the scrubs, he was reintegrated slowly. He got minutes as a second-half substitute in three straight games before finally being handed a start against 1. FC Köln. Injuries to both of Hertha’s first-choice center backs meant that not only would Brooks be starting his first match in nearly two months, he would also need to call the shots at the back. Though partner Jens Hegeler, a converted midfielder, has never played central defense for Hertha, Brooks marshaled the backline to a 2-1 win in Cologne. He’s been leading ever since.

Ghana v USA: Group G - 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil

Brooks can only do so much — Hertha simply aren’t very good — but his confident, vocal and physically imposing presence has kept the capital club close against much better sides. Falling 1-0 to FC Bayern Munich and 3-2 to Borussia Mönchengladbach won’t add to your point total, but it does help build a team’s confidence, instilling the kind of self-belief that culminates in scrappy 1-0 wins like the one Hertha earned over Borussia Dortmund last weekend.

Brooks utterly dominated in that game, putting in a man-of-the-match performance punctuated by a 77 percent success rate in one-on-one’s as well as the most touches in the team (63). Afterward, Luhukay made it clear that Brooks was all the way back in his good graces.

“He was always there when balls came into our penalty area – high and low,” Luhukay said. “This is the Brooks I always want to see – I’m immensely pleased for him. I’ve battled it out with him in the past, but we’ve always been respectful and honest with each other. So I’m very happy for him.”

Those invested in U.S. fortunes may be even happier. Brooks can’t fulfill our wish for an American starter on a Champions League-level side (at least, not yet), but playing in arguably the world’s best league, he’s turning into a linchpin for his club. For both Hertha and U.S. men’s national team fans, that’s something to get excited about.

Photo credits, from top to bottom: Brooks celebrates during the Bundesliga match between Eintracht Frankfurt and Hertha BSC on Dec. 17, 2014 (Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images); Brooks celebrates scoring his team’s second goal during the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil Group G match between Ghana and the United States on June 16, 2014 (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images).

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