Steve Davis
Monday June 6th, 2011

There's only one sure cure for the raging Spanish hangover currently pounding in the temples of Bob Bradley's national team: a better night against Canada to open a tournament that the coach and his men have pointed toward all spring.

The Gold Cup was always the apple of Bradley's eye for summer 2011. He paid a handsome price on Saturday for assigning it such a high priority, as Spain's kaleidoscope of stars undressed a U.S. team stripped bare of most veteran know-how. Instead, most of the heavies were held in reserve until halftime or rested altogether before Tuesday's tournament opener inside Ford Field (8 p.m. ET, Fox Soccer Channel).

But all the consternation over Saturday's 4-0 loss can be cast aside, just water under the Gold Cup bridge if the cavalry can ride heroically to the rescue Tuesday. If things work right, the full complement of U.S. starters will help restore any wayward belief and get the tournament going in the right direction.

The contest against Canada is the opener of three first-round Group C matches for the United States, and it really is Rose Bowl or bust for the hosts and tournament co-favorites (along with Mexico) as they aim for a June 25 final in Pasadena.

Goalkeeper Tim Howard says his team, which claimed Gold Cup crowns in 2005 and 2007 and made it to the 2009 final, will be right back on track, none the worse for Saturday's beat down. "No, we've been in this position before," he said. "If we let one decision rock the whole boat, then we're not much of a team. This is a strong team and we're strong willed. I think you'll see the right mentality again on Tuesday."

For sure, we'll see the best players. Carlos Boganegra and Steve Cherundolo are all but sure to return to the back line, although Bradley's has some options in the arrangement. The coach keeps expecting better results from center back favorite Oguchi Onyewu, but these aren't friendlies anymore. If the former U.S. central mainstay can't rediscover the instincts, reactions and positional sense that made him such a big part of World Cup qualifying last time around, mistakes will be increasingly costly.

That probably means Bocanegra manning the middle, which means Bradley is once again picking among the "lesser evil" of options at left back, most likely Jonathan Bornstein. Also falling into the "lesser evil" category, Bradley has tough choices at forward, given Jozy Altidore's continued undistinguished appearances and the inexperience of Chris Wondolowski and Juan Agudelo at international level.

Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan will reinforce a midfield that was painfully ineffective in Saturday's first half. Donovan trained Sunday and team officials reported no lingering signs of the slight illness that finalized Saturday's decision to rest him.

Michael Bradley has become as indispensable as the U.S. big three, Howard, Donovan and Dempsey. He'll be paired in all likelihood with Maurice Edu or Jermaine Jones (or both if the coach chooses the 4-2-3-1 we've seen at times since last summer), but neither comes close to stabilizing and marshaling the midfield the way Bradley does so reliably.

Overall, we know more or less what to expect from Bradley's side, the core of which is unchanged from last year's second round World Cup appearance. But what to make of Canada, a long-dormant presence from north of the border with surprisingly little history against the Americans recently? The teams have met just five times since 1997; The United States and Mexico have clashed 19 times in that same period.

The United States and its northern neighbor haven't met at all since 2007, in fact; Canada's somewhat surprising third-round exit from World Cup 2010 qualifying prevented any potential final-round meetings.

World Cup qualification in 1986 and a surprise Gold Cup championship in 2000 are the high points of Canadian soccer. But recent efforts by the Canadian Soccer Association to bolster the national program have coach Stephen Hart confident -- even when recent results suggest he shouldn't be.

A 2-2 draw with Ecuador last week in Toronto raised some injury concerns. Midfielders Josh Simpson and Will Johnson had their moments, as did forwards Simeon Jackson and Dwayne De Rosario. But defender Dejan Jakovic, from D.C. United, picked up a hamstring injury that forced Hart to replace him on the Gold Cup roster, weakening a defense that seemed vulnerable already.

Canada might present the toughest first-round test, but the other Group C opponents can be pesky in their own ways. Panama knows how to defend, and the United States sometimes struggles to break down teams that like to "park the bus," as they say. (So did Mexico for a half Sunday night against little El Salvador.) Guadeloupe isn't a bad side when it gets full use of the French players.

So, potential traps are set. Toss in the fact that the United States will need its full roster, dipping further into its 23-man contingent, to navigate the packed schedule. That means summoning some of the same performers who shrank against Spain, propping up their confidence and keeping fingers crossed that they can rebound.

A fast start against Canada will vent some pressure and make the next week and a half a little less stressful.

"The Gold Cup is not easy to win," Cherundolo said. "There are plenty of teams capable of winning, capable of upsets. They are dangerous teams, especially for us, because most of us expect to get to the final with Mexico. So it's not easy, but we've proven in the past that with our tactical awareness and physical attributes, we're able to play consistently in tournaments like this. So, same story this time around."

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