CHICAGO — Though not quite a homecoming, John Brooks' first visit to Chicago in nearly two decades is significant. His tattoo of the state of Illinois on his right elbow offers some evidence as to why.
The German-American defender came to the Windy City as a toddler, visiting the family of his American serviceman father, who is from here. Almost two decades later, Brooks is back as a member of the U.S. national team, preparing to play in the biggest game of his budding international career.
The U.S. faces Costa Rica on Tuesday in a virtual must-win Copa America match, and if the Americans are going to secure the three points needed to keep their hopes of advancing to the knockout round alive, they will need another strong showing from Brooks.
The 22-year-old defender held his own against Colombia on Friday, one of the few clear bright spots on an otherwise lackluster performance by the U.S. Having overtaken Matt Besler for the starting left center back spot, Brooks has looked very sharp for the U.S. in recent appearances and is finally playing at the same level for the national team as he has played for Bundesliga side Hertha Berlin.
“I think I finally found my spot a little here on this team,” Brooks said when asked if he finally feels settled in with the U.S. “From the beginning, the team was nice, but when you come every time from Europe it’s a little bit different here. Now I think I’m finally here and it’s good for me now.”
Brooks looked very confident against Colombia, both defensively and in possession. His distribution was excellent and he avoided the kind of defensive mistakes that had plagued past national team appearances, most memorably at last summer's CONCACAF Gold Cup. As much as he had his struggles at the Gold Cup, he believes the tournament helped him become better.
"Every game I learn a lot, especially the Gold Cup," Brooks said. "It was a good experience too. It was not always the best conditions but we tried our best and at the end we were not as lucky as we wanted to be, but for me it was still a good experience.
“Of course (I learned) a lot," he said of his Gold Cup experience. "You really can’t compare (it to Copa America), but it was still good preparation for this Copa America so I know what to expect, so it’s good for me now.”
Brooks and Geoff Cameron have formed a steady partnership and have played two strong games together. U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann is likely to call on the pair against a Costa Rica side with some dangerous attackers in Joel Campbell and Bryan Ruiz.
"I can play well with Geoff Cameron," Brooks said. "I think you saw the defense was pretty good and we’ll keep going."
Brooks acknowledged how special it was to be back here, and he expects several family members to be in attendance at Soldier Field to watch him play. If Brooks can put together another good showing Tuesday, he will take another step toward establishing himself as Klinsmann's long-term central defender option, something he has seemed destined to be since making his national team debut in 2012.
Brooks didn't watch Costa Rica's goal-less draw with Paraguay, but he still believes he and the U.S. are in a tough test Tuesday, one he believes the U.S. can pass.
“Everybody knows Costa Rica, we know Costa Rica as well," he said. "Of course it’s a tough game, but we’re getting prepared for it.”