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By Michael Lewis

FAIRFAX, Virginia -- For El Salvador striker Rodolfo Zelaya, the past is history.

It doesn't matter that the Salvadorans haven't beaten Panama in their last three matches.

The Panamanians' 2-1 opening round upset of the United States in the Gold Cup? That now is just a matter of record.

Zelaya is more concerned about Sunday, when El Salvador faces off against its Central American rival in the Gold Cup quarterfinals at RFK Stadium after the United States and Jamaica play in the first game of the doubleheader.

"Every game is different," Zelaya said after training at George Mason University on Friday. "That was a good win on their part. ...We're still very confident that we can win. That game is in the past and that really means nothing to us."

The teams know each other well. Panama capitalized on the home-field advantage and finished third at Copa Centroamericana -- Central America's qualifying tournament for the Gold Cup -- in January, mostly at El Salvador's expense.

Panama won in the group stage 2-0, and prevailed in a shootout, 5-4, after a goalless draw in the third-place match. El Salvador hasn't scored a goal in its last three encounters with the Panamanians.

Ruben Israel, who took over El Salvador's coaching reins from Jose Luis Rugamas in April, has instilled a new system and spirit in the team.

"We've worked really hard so far," said Zelaya, whose three goals have him tied him with three others for second place in the Gold Cup scoring race behind Mexico's Javier Hernandez (five).

"(Coach) Ruben has done a great job of getting the team together. He just started. It's a long process normally to start a team, but we're picking up the pace. Hopefully we can have a good result against Panama on Sunday."

Picking up the pace was the key phase for Los Cuscatlecos in this competition.

The Salvadorans started off holding Mexico to a 0-0 draw through 55 minutes, but then allowed five goals in the next 35 to lose 5-0.

Against Costa Rica, it led until the fifth minute of injury time before it allowed an equalizing goal and settled for a 1-1 draw.

But when they needed a win and score goals, they came through in a 6-1 rout of Cuba to clinch the team's first Gold Cup quarterfinal berth since 2003 and third overall.

"Making it into the quarters had been a while, so . . . we're all happy," said midfielder Arturo Alvarez, who scored his first international against Cuba. "We want to keep playing. Now that we made it past the first round, we want to go all the way."

That is easier said than done. El Salvador will have to get past a difficult Panama side, which won Group C, to reach Wednesday's semifinals in Houston.

"They're a tough team," defender Steve Purdy said. "They've been showing really well. They beat America. They've been very physical, a lot of aerial balls. For us, sometimes it's kind of tough with some of that physical play and some of the balls in the air. We're going to have to contain that type of game and try to play our game when we have the ball."