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ON SOCCER

This is golden opportunity

US' best may miss Copa America

FOXBOROUGH -- It was a lovely week for the guys in the white shirts. They were comfortably lodged on the Left Bank of the Charles, the weather was marvelous, and they produced two solid victories in their favorite playpen (16-1-4 all time) on Route 1.

But now the difficult part starts for the US men's soccer team. Actually, it started just when things were looking easy yesterday afternoon, when the Yanks, up two goals and a man on Panama, got careless, gave up a score in the 84th minute, and had to sweat mightily for their W.

"They score and make the last few minutes crazy," said coach Bob Bradley, after his squad had held on to beat the Canaleros, 2-1, at Gillette Stadium to earn a date with Canada in the CONCACAF Gold Cup semifinals in Chicago Thursday. "That's certainly something we will talk about."

Up to now, the Americans were cruising, earning a quarterfinals spot before they even arrived here for their group finale against El Salvador. But there won't be any gimmes for the rest of the summer, not even against the Canadians, who haven't beaten them on this side of the border in 50 years.

"It's not as easy as the US and Mexico are going to play in the final," said Landon Donovan, whose penalty kick in the 60th minute got his mates on the board. "These games are difficult, as we saw with Canada running away against Guatemala [for a 3-0 win]."

The Yanks figured they'd get a vigorous challenge from the Panamanians, who put them through a grinder in the 2005 final before falling on penalty kicks and who gave the Mexicans all they could handle in their group meeting.

Still, the Canaleros were undermanned this time, with three of their starters (defender Roman Torres and midfielders Gabriel Gomez and Rolando Escobar) sitting out suspensions. Once the final half-hour loomed, the US vets stepped in and within three minutes delivered what should have been the knockout.

After Donovan was rugby-tackled in the area on the dead run, he coolly drilled home the penalty for his 10th career Gold Cup goal after crouching down for a while to settle his pulse. "Like being in the backyard with your brother," Donovan said. "Instead of in front of 30,000 people."

When Carlos Bocanegra headed in DaMarcus Beasley's free kick in the 62d minute, that should have settled things, especially after Manuel Torres was red-carded and Panama had to play short handed for the final 14 minutes plus four more of added-time.

Then Blas Perez got loose, boomed one past keeper Tim Howard, and the US had to labor mightily until the whistle. "You give them a sniff and they can make it difficult for you," said Donovan, whose mates hadn't given up a goal in the tournament.

From here out for the Americans, life becomes more demanding and more complex. The Canadians, up three goals before halftime, looked like world-beaters yesterday against a Guatemalan bunch that had allowed the US only one goal. And if the Mexicans straighten themselves out (and the Costa Ricans promise no picnic in Houston today) and make it to Sunday's final, they have half a million fans in the Windy City who'll make Soldier Field seem like Estadio Azteca.

More demanding is what the US Soccer folks want, which is why they signed up for the Copa America after a 12-year absence. There are 10 new faces on the roster and more in the wings and the federation wants to know who can perform when the squeeze is on. "That's the reason why we're going to Copa America," said Bradley, whose squad will face Argentina, Colombia and Paraguay in their group. "These opportunities to keep putting our younger players in tough situations is really important."

The Copa, the South American championships that kick off next week , will be much tougher than the Gold Cup and Bradley will be lucky if he has half of the players available that he has here. MLS clubs like the Revolution, which has three players among this group, will be reluctant to let their guys go on a three-week sojourn to Venezuela. "I'm available," said Donovan, "but the Galaxy doesn't want me to go."

And the European clubs, which start camp soon, want their guys back, too. That means no Howard and probably no Bocanegra, no Beasley, no Clint Dempsey. This week in this vicinity is as good as it gets. Two victories, room-service with a view of the Rivah, and a June reunion with everyone around.

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