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USA strikers hot going into Gold Cup opener
by Ridge Mahoney, June 7th, 2007 7AM

TAGS:  gold cup, international


The first competitive match of the Bob Bradley Era - the Gold Cup opener against Guatemala Thursday (9 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel) - give him and his team a chance to redeem a goalless draw the teams played March 28. As Soccer America's Ridge Mahoney reports, odds look good for the USA if Taylor Twellman and Eddie Johnson bring their MLS hot streaks to tonight's game ...

Despite facing a massed opponent, the Americans carved out enough chances to win in their last encounter with Guatemala. But Eddie Johnson had yet to emerge from his barren funk by scoring nine MLS goals in as many games, and he failed to put away two good setups. A point-blank Clint Dempsey header failed to beat the keeper, and Landon Donovan seldom sliced his way into a shooting position.

Both Johnson and Taylor Twellman (seven MLS goals) are in sharp form, so if chances fall to them, the odds of conversion are good. Dempsey failed to put two good prime opportunities Saturday against China but did crash home a Benny Feilhaber corner kick for the third goal.

"We felt that he made a lot of progress in the camps earlier this year," said Coach Bob Bradley of Johnson. "You could see he went back to Kansas City and from the get-go Curt [Onalfo] and his staff have done a good job of challenging him and keeping him going and it's nice to see that he's gaining confidence and having success."

The Americans also didn't utilize their set plays, two of which yielded goals against China. With bigger, stronger defenders available in Oguchi Oneywu and Carlos Bocanegra, Bradley might opt for them in the middle, especially since Jimmy Conrad's hamstring injury has ruled him out of this tournament. On the other hand, if he wants to rotate defenders, the larger set could be aimed to play Trinidad & Tobago Saturday.

The U.S. also didn't much get attacking out of right back Frankie Simek in his U.S. debut, and the other Frankie - Hejduk - has been in scorching mode for Columbus, so Bradley may opt for pace and a player well versed in Gold Cup competition. Either of the Jonathan options at left back, Bornstein and Spector, are effective pushing forward.

Michael Bradley and Benny Feilhaber were paired in midfield against Guatemala and both played well in the 4-1 win over China Saturday. Each had an assist and Feilhaber raced through the middle to lob home the winning goal.

"When we play in the Gold Cup there's going to be different challenges," says Bradley, "and certainly one of the main things is how we deal with teams that will be very organized defensively and not look to attack so much but be patient and wait for opportunities on the counterattack.

"After the Guatemala game in March we talked about how there has to be an understanding of how to play in these games. We can't get frustrated and we have to know what type of game we're in for."

Carlos Ruiz isn't the only MLS connection on the Guatemala roster. Guillermo "Pando" Ramirez, goalscoring hero of the Galaxy's 2005 MLS Cup victory, is in the squad, as are veterans Dwight Pezzarossi, Henry Medina, Pablo Melgar, and Gustavo Cabrera. They are experienced at keeping things tight and looking for a chance to break out quickly.

The Chapines finished third in the UNCAF Nations Cup to qualify for their eighth Gold Cup. They gained confidence by tying and frustrating the Americans in Dallas.

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