Breaking down the play that made the play that lifted the U.S. past Ghana

Breaking down the play that made the play that lifted the U.S. past Ghana

This little touch by Ghana's Jonathan Mensah changed the Americans' fortunes.

By now, we've all seen the goal that made you hug a stranger or tackle a toddler (or was that just me?): John Brooks' improbable header off a Graham Zusi corner kick that sealed three points for the United States against Ghana.

(Brooks and Zusi were two of the Americans' three substitutes, by the way).

But in all that euphoria, it's easy to forget the play that made the play possible. Once you see it, you'll give some credit for the heroics to Americans Aron Johannsson (the third American substitute) and Fabian Johnson. Because of it, if the Americans can at least tie Portugal on Sunday, it would take a Ghanaian or Portuguese miracle to keep them out of the knockout round.

Let's break it down (you can watch the whole play on WatchESPN by clicking here and skipping ahead to the 2 hour, 16 minute mark).

It begins with a seemingly harmless throw-in by Johnson. His options are limited, so he simply tosses it in to Johannsson, who taps it right back to Johnson.

 

Fabian Johnson throws it in to Aron Johannsson.

After surveying the field, Johnson rolls to back to Johannsson and tries to sneak down the sideline for a wide run. Ghana's Sulley Muntari lets Johnson go and turns his attention back to Johannsson, likely assuming No. 20 Asamoah is going to follow Johnson's run.

Johnson (23) streaks toward the box as Johannsson tries to thread the ball forward.

Asamoah turns his head and Johannsson takes that opportunity to feed an ambitious vertical ball, hoping the speedy Johnson can catch up to it.

Now, it's important to remember that Johnson -- the team's right-side defender -- had just completed a run of almost 100 yards about 20 seconds earlier on the play that earned the throw-in for the U.S (see picture below).

This Johnson run, just before the throw-in, started in front of his own goal.

In the oppressive heat and humidity of Natal, no one would have blamed him for giving up on the second run and just letting Johannsson's ball roll out harmlessly. That's not laziness, it's using your head when you know you have nearly 10 minutes left to survive.

But Johnson doesn't give up on the ball and bursts forward with two big strides. This forces Ghana's Jonathan Mensah to defend. Mensah's pressure gives Johnson another excuse to give up on the ball if he wants. The ball is rolling pretty quickly, and clearly is going to go out over the end line.

Johnson still looks like there's no real chance for him to reach the ball before it goes out of bounds.

But Johnson doesn't give up, and Mensah, instead of booting it away for another throw-in, decides to shoulder him off and try to shield the ball across the line without touching it. Johnson never touches the ball, but the force of Mensah's body check (hockey term) causes Mensah to stumble, and his foot touches the ball before it goes over the line.

Mensah intends to just push Johnson away from the ball but it hits his foot instead.

Mensah knows he touched it and instinctively tries to save the ball from going out. When he doesn't, he raises his arm and tries to act like he didn't. The ref and assistant ref do a nice job staying with the ball and making the correct call.

Ghana's Mensah' tries to sell that he never touched the ball, but the ref doesn't buy it.

At the time, it seemed like a harmless play and a pass from Johannsson that was hit just a little too hard.

But without it, Brooks and Zusi never get the chance to be heroes.

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Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

Best of NHL: Matt Murray, Penguins cruise past Habs

MONTREAL -- Eric Fehr and Jake Guentzel scored in the second period to lead the Pittsburgh Penguins past the Montreal Canadiens 4-1 on Wednesday night.

Defensemen Ian Cole and Olli Maatta also scored for Pittsburgh, which won its second game in a row after a three-game skid.

Sven Andrighetto scored for Montreal, which lost its second straight and has only two wins in its last six games. The Canadiens' offense remained in a rut coming off a 1-0 loss Monday in Detroit.

Penguins goalie Matt Murray was back in form after Monday's wild 8-7 win over Washington, making 19 saves. But Carey Price's woes continued as Pittsburgh outshot Montreal 26-20. Price allowed three or more goals for the eighth time in 10 games (see full recap).

Vanek, Nielsen lead Wings over Bruins
DETROIT -- Thomas Vanek and Frans Nielsen scored in a shootout, lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a comeback 6-5 win over the Boston Bruins on Wednesday night.

The Red Wings rallied from 3-0 and 4-1 deficits in the first period, and with 3:04 remaining in regulation, Gustav Nyquist scored to pull them into a tie.

In the shootout, Tuukka Rask and Petr Mrazek stopped the first shots they faced before Vanek scored for the Red Wings and Brad Marchand countered with a goal for the Bruins. Nielsen, who like Vanek joined the team last summer as a free agent, scored on the team's third attempt and Vatrano missed the net with a chance to extend the 1-on-1 duels.

The Bruins were dominant early before blowing a chance to keep Detroit at a distance in the Atlantic Division standings (see full recap).

Burns, Pavelski push Sharks past Kings
LOS ANGELES -- Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Tommy Wingels scored in the San Jose Sharks' seventh win at Staples Center in their last eight trips, 3-2 over the Los Angeles Kings on Wednesday night.

Joe Thornton had two assists and Martin Jones made 22 saves for the defending Western Conference champion Sharks, who wrapped up their regular-season series against their biggest rivals with three victories in five games.

After Burns scored his 19th goal in the opening minutes, San Jose hung on through a scoreless third period to continue its recent domination in downtown Los Angeles, including three victories in last season's first-round playoff series.

Tanner Pearson and Marian Gaborik scored for the Kings, who ended a seven-game homestand with four defeats (see full recap).

McDavid scores in OT, Oilers edge Panthers
EDMONTON, Alberta -- Connor McDavid scored the winning goal in overtime as the Edmonton Oilers won their fourth game in a row, 4-3 over the Florida Panthers on Wednesday night.

McDavid, who also had two assists in the game, got a breakaway late in overtime and got the puck away with 2.6 seconds left. Florida's James Reimer made the glove save, but the puck was ruled to be across the line via video review.

Zack Kassian, Mark Letestu and Jordan Eberle also scored for the Oilers, who have their longest winning streak since December 2015.

Vincent Trocheck, Michael Sgarbossa and Greg McKegg had goals for the Panthers, who have lost two straight (see full recap).

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

Joel Embiid, Sixers prove plenty with benchmark win over Raptors

BOX SCORE

The Sixers weren’t supposed to beat the Raptors, were they? This was going to be an “easy” game for the visiting team, which was coming to Philadelphia on a back-to-back that started in Brooklyn. The Raptors are a playoff team, and second in the Eastern Conference at that. Not to mention, they had defeated the Sixers in their last 14 meetings.

Maybe easy would have been the case the last time the two teams played back in mid-December. For the Sixers, though, things have changed since then and a 94-89 win over the Raptors on Wednesday proved this recent success is not fleeting (see Instant Replay).

“I don’t think it’s a fluke,” Joel Embiid said. “We’re competing. We’re winning games. We’re playing great defense. We finally found what we’ve been looking for.”

The Sixers had been missing clearly-defined roles and a defensive identity (see story). Now that Brett Brown has whittled down his roster to 10 players and laid out a starting five and second unit, the team has been gelling in those two aspects. The Sixers have won seven out of their last nine games, with the Raptors being the highest caliber of competition.

The Raptors entered the game averaging 111.5 points per game, first in the East and third in the NBA behind only the Warriors and Rockets. They had scored less than 100 points in just seven games this season. Additionally, the Raptors had been held to under 90 points by a single opponent: the Spurs. Not bad company to be in. 

Embiid led all players with 26 points (including 12 for 14 from the free throw line) to go with nine rebounds (see highlights). The Sixers staved off 25 points (11 for 21 from the field), six assists and three rebounds from DeMar DeRozan and 24 points (11 for 16 from the line), four rebounds, four assists and five steals from Kyle Lowry, who fouled out. The Raptors shot 25 percent from three and 65.2 percent at the free throw line.  

“We’re playing with a spirit, we’re playing with a defensive mindset,” Brown said. “There is a belief within each other amongst the team that is the best that it’s been since I’ve been here.”

The Sixers' winning stretch began against subpar teams, opponents who earlier in the season some would look at the schedule and say, the Sixers could probably take that one, as they tried to project a batch of victories. The Sixers turned those wins over the Nuggets, Timberwolves and Nets into momentum and carried it into a matchup against the Knicks.

Even though the Knicks are looking lost this season, they still have veteran offensive firepower that can take over a game against a struggling opponent. The Sixers made noise by beating them at the buzzer, then escalated their performance against the postseason-hungry Hornets and Bucks. 

The Raptors are different, though. There is no questioning their success and potential to make a deep playoff run … again. Nonetheless, the Sixers handled this well-seasoned opponent with composure and confidence down the stretch. 

They stayed together when DeRozan hit a jumper with 1:53 to play to give the Raptors their first lead since the second quarter. The Sixers responded to the one-point deficit with a 7-0 run to push the edge up to six points with 20.7 seconds to go.

“I think it says we’re for real. It shows our consistency that we’ve built throughout the year,” Nerlens Noel said. “We’re relentless. We have a young group of guys that know how to play the game and play it the right way and will come out there and compete against anybody in this league. I think the perception should be a whole different one now.”

The Sixers showed they can compete with top talent. Their wins aren't just coming from teams at the bottom of the standings. 

"That gives us a lot of confidence," Embiid said. "Coming into the game, we had a lot of confidence. Winning against the second-best team in the East is just amazing. We’re going to keep on working."