CARSON, Calif. -- Clint Dempsey is thriving even as his national team is struggling.
Dempsey's first-half goal gave the United States a 1-0 victory over Guatemala on Thursday in the opening round of the CONCACAF Gold Cup.
The U.S. team has yet to lose this year, but often looked ragged against what should have been an overmatched opponent.
In the first competitive game for the Americans since their first-round World Cup exit last June, Dempsey scored off Taylor Twellman's assist in the 26th minute. That kept the United States undefeated in 20 group-play games of the Gold Cup. Twellman sent a cross from the left side to Dempsey just as he surged into the box for an easy goal.
U.S. coach Bob Bradley said he started Twellman over Eddie Johnson, who had had a pair of hat tricks in MLS games recently, anticipating just such a situation.
"This game was tailor-made for Taylor, sorry, and his instincts in the penalty area," Bradley said.
It was the eighth national team goal for Dempsey, who plays for Fulham in England, and the second in a week. He also scored in a Saturday exhibition against China.
"It was good to get that goal against China. I hadn't been scoring for the U.S. in a while,'' Dempsey said. "I'm just running on confidence right now."
The lanky, flat-topped Texan was all over the field and constantly involved during the first half. He had a near-miss in the eighth minute on a shot that flew right of the goal. He was replaced in the 61st minute by Johnson.
Dempsey came to the States fresh off a big goal for Fulham over Liverpool last month.
Bradley won his first competitive game as coach of the national team, but his players were outplayed in the second half. He was 4-0-1 in exhibitions coming in; the one tie was with Guatemala.
"We hoped for more goals," Bradley said. "We had opportunities for the second goal. Had we scored the second, maybe it would have opened up."
The Americans were lively and dominant in the first half, but were often on their heels in a rough second half that saw central defender Oguchi Onyewu ejected with two yellow cards.
Star U.S. forward Landon Donovan temporarily left the game in the 70th minute after an apparent blow to the forehead. He and Guatemala's Carlos Ruiz traded shouts as Donovan went to the sideline, but he soon returned.
But Onyewu got his second yellow for a midfield scuffle in the 73rd, leaving an already-depleted defensive corps in difficulty. Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni is serving a three-match ban following a red card in last year's World Cup, when the Americans were eliminated in the first round.
Guatemala coach Hernan Dario Gomez said Onyewu's cards were a good sign for the United States -- it means a team noted for its cool organization is beginning to play more physically.
"I like it when they lose their composure," Gomez said through a translator. "It means they don't want to lose. And I want to see the Americans do well."
Bradley said Onyewu's second foul may have been provoked.
"There's always an attempt by teams when players have yellows to look for opportunities to get a second yellow," he said. "They have players like Carlos Ruiz who are very good at initiating contact and drawing fouls."
Frankie Hejduk, recovered from a severe knee injury, played his first international game since April 2006 for the U.S. team.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard saw little action in the first half, but needed to work for saves after the break. He made a leaping block of a high shot by Leonel Noriega in the 50th minute -- perhaps Guatemala's best chance of the game -- and a diving save on a free kick 10 minutes later.
The defending champion Americans are seeking a fourth tournament victory in the Gold Cup, the championship of North and Central America and the Caribbean, and their third in the last four events.
The U.S. team plays Trinidad and Tobago on Saturday. Guatemala plays El Salvador.
Guatemala, which played the United States to a scoreless exhibition draw on March 28, has not won a Gold Cup game in 15 tries dating back to 1996.
The Americans were yet again essentially visitors in their home country as they took on a Latin American opponent; the crowd overwhelmingly favored the Guatemalans.
Dempsey said facing jeers at home is a good, if not entirely wanted, test for the U.S. squad.
"This is what it's going to be like when it comes time to qualify for the World Cup," Dempsey said. "But obviously we'd like to have more support."