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USA remains on course by grinding out points
by Ridge Mahoney, June 12th, 2007 7AM

TAGS:  gold cup, men's national team


Three days after clinching a spot in the Gold Cup quarterfinals by beating Trinidad & Tobago, the USA finishes Group B play against El Salvador at Gillette Stadium needing only a point to clinch first place and with some questions to resolve (TV: Fox Soccer Channel and TeleFutura, live, 7 pm ET).

Which forward combination, not to mention alignment, is best? Should Clint Dempsey play as a second forward as he did against Guatemala, or is it time to give him a run in midfield, where Ricardo Clark, Benny Feilhaber, Justin Mapp and Michael Bradley have all played well?

Which of the eight defenders Coach Bob Bradley has used in the first two games will get the call, considering that Carlos Bocanegra and Frankie Hejduk are carrying cautions and will be suspended in the quarterfinal if they receive another one?

If Pablo Mastroeni, who sat out the first two Gold Cup games serving a suspension he received at the World Cup last summer, gets a start, who plays with him in midfield? Or is it better for him to come off the bench as a tuneup for the quarterfinals?

Is this a good time to recall Oguchi Onyewu, who is eligible after serving a suspension against T&T, so he can rebuild his confidence for the knockout rounds?

A payment dispute dating back to last summer's World Cup barred most of T&T's top players from the Gold Cup, and those that did make the trip lost to the USA, 2-0, on Saturday afternoon. They should have lost more heavily, as terrible offside calls deprived the USA of several clear-cut chances and some flaccid finishing permitted Jan-Michael Williams to save a couple more.

Yet give some credit to the reserves of Trinidad & Tobago; they aren't great players, but they are true Soca Warriors. These backups didn't back down.

T&T scrapped all the way and didn't crumble despite being sliced apart often by the USA attack. Its own offense lacked polish, yet it pumped enough balls into the box and won enough free kicks to keep Kasey Keller interested, and forced him into two saves, include a 90th minute parry that preserved a 47th career shutout in his 99th appearance.

Only one USA starter, Feilhaber, returned to the starting 11 from the team that beat Guatemala, 1-0, Thursday. While Feilhaber roamed in support of the attack, Clark anchored midfield, Mapp and Steve Ralston ran the flanks, and Brian Ching and Eddie Johnson each scored a goal while being partnered up front.

Defender Michael Parkhurst earned his first cap alongside Jay DeMerit in central defense, with Jonathan Spector (left) and Frank Simek (right) manning the outside slots. Thanks to the diligent, tidy work of Clark, T&T had to rely on cavalry charges to get near the goalmouth, as its passing ran aground on Clark's tackles and its crosses were repelled by DeMerit.

While second-half substitute Landon Donovan, Mapp and Ralston supplied most of the attacking impetus, Simek also got forward a few times and in the first half reached the edge of the opposing penalty area to chip a shot a yard wide of the top corner. Spector's attacking inclinations left him stranded upfield a couple of times but T&T didn't have the guile and experience to take advantage before the USA defense covered the gaps.

In addition to auditioning several forward pairings, Bradley has tried different combinations in midfield and used two entirely different back lines against Guatemala and Trinidad & Tobago. The resulting disjointedness has produced some ragged play, three nice goals, and six points.

The USA team flew a red-eye to Boston after the T&T game and the match with El Salvador is its third in six days. Muscles were massaged and stretched, joints and limbs were iced. With Canada and Mexico, losing their second games after opening with wins, the U.S. is the only team to take maximum points so far. Regardless of whether or not it wins the group, the U.S. will stay at this venue to play its quarterfinal Saturday.

Staying healthy and grinding out points are the objectives at this stage, and so far, the mission is on course.

5 Kasey Keller
6 Frank Simek
6 Jay DeMerit
5 Michael Parkhurst
6 Jonathan Spector
6 Steve Ralston
7 Ricardo Clark
6 Benny Feilhaber
6 Justin Mapp
7 Brian Ching
6 Eddie Johnson

7 Landon Donovan
5 Michael Bradley
3 Taylor Twellman


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