Soccer America
Friday March 27th, 2009

Last August, the U.S. began the semifinal round of CONCACAF 2010 World Cup qualifying by winning in Guatemala for the first time. Its first away test in the Hexagonal comes Saturday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN2, TeleFutura) in San Salvador, a city in which it has won and tied in two previous qualifying visits, so a victory won't be as historic. But it will be no less important, especially should Mexico, which lost 2-0 to the U.S. in Columbus, Ohio, last month, fail to beat Costa Rica in Azteca Stadium.

Costa Rica is tied for first place atop the Hexagonal with the same record (1-0-0) and goal difference (plus-2) as the U.S. after beating Honduras 2-0 on Feb. 11. The Salvadorans are rated the weakest of the six Hexagonal teams, and needed a late two-goal rally to pull out a 2-2 tie against Trinidad and Tobago in San Salvador on the first day of play.

They may be outmanned with slim hopes of advancing, but the Salvadorans will also be desperate. They restored some confidence after conceding two goals in the first half, and midfielder Osael Romero matched Michael Bradley's dual strikes against Mexico by netting in the 82nd and 90th minutes against T&T.

This being the first of four double-dates on the '09 FIFA calendar, U.S. coach Bob Bradley has assembled a squad of 22 players for the quick turnaround. The Americans play T&T on Wednesday in Nashville, Tenn., and regardless of Saturday's results, the dings and bruises incurred may open up opportunities for Bradley to go deep into his squad.

Steve Cherundolo is sidelined with a strained right hip, so Frankie Hedjuk is again the first choice at right back, as he was against Mexico. All 11 starters, and 15 of the 18 players named to the game-day roster against Mexico, are again on hand, but the lineup won't be the same.

Goalie Tim Howard is suspended, and though Brad Guzan is the heir apparent, neither he nor Marcus Hahnemann has seen much action lately. Guzan played seven games in various cup competitions for Aston Villa before being summoned last week to replace a red-carded Brad Friedel in a 5-0 battering at Liverpool. Guzan surrendered a goal on a penalty kick as Steven Gerrard completed the rout with 25 minutes to play.

Hahnemann recently recovered from a torn calf muscle that sidelined him for nearly three months. He has played three first-team games for Reading since his return.

Who to play in goal isn't nearly so important as whether midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, who sat out the Mexico game with a suspension, gets back into the starting lineup. Pairing Mastroeni with Michael Bradley in the middle could push Sacha Kljestan to the right side or out of the lineup entirely, unless coach Bradley opts to start Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey up top.

Bradley also has forwards Brian Ching, Jozy Altidore and Eddie Johnson, whose recent play for Cardiff City earned him his first call-up since coming on as a sub Sept. 10 against T&T in Bridgeview, Ill. Johnson's amazing record of eight goals in nine qualifiers began in '04 when he scored against El Salvador in his U.S. debut, but his only goal in '08 came in an 8-0 rout of Barbados. Ching scored in his last two qualifying starts: in that game against T&T, and a month later in a 6-1 rout of Cuba at RFK Stadium.

Longer absences due to injury have kept defenders Jay DeMerit and Jonathan Spector out of the picture. Both can play centrally in relief of Carlos Bocanegra or Oguchi Onyewu, and have some experience at outside back.

"The games against El Salvador and Trinidad and Tobago represent a big opportunity to solidify our place in the group," Bradley said. "We had a fantastic team effort against Mexico, and if we put in the same type of performance we are confident of being able to get results."

The heaviest portion of the '09 schedule follows these two games. The U.S. has two more qualifiers in early June, followed by the Confederations Cup in the middle of the month and the CONCACAF Gold Cup in July. What happens Saturday and Wednesday will shape some of the choices Bradley makes for June and July.

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