Hirscher seeks Austrian record, US team looking for improvement at Zagreb night slalom

ZAGREB, Croatia - While Marcel Hirscher can become Austria's most successful slalom skier with 15 wins, the American team is seeking its first top-15 result of the season in Tuesday's night race.

Starting positions for the two strongest World Cup nations could hardly be more different ahead of the first of five slaloms this month, leading up to the Feb. 15 world championship race in Beaver Creek.

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Hirscher, who is currently tied with Benjamin Raich on 14 victories, will join Croatia's Ivica Kostelic in fourth place on the all-time slalom winners list if he triumphs again on the Sljeme hill, where he won the previous two editions of the event.

However, the three-time overall champion isn't full of confidence this time after he finished only seventh in Madonna di Campiglio, Italy, two weeks ago.

"There is hope. But it's going to be difficult after the disappointing last slalom," said Hirscher, who put in six days of slalom training to prepare for the upcoming races.

The first three slaloms this season had three different winners. Norway's Henrik Kristoffersen won the opener in Levi, Finland, Hirscher triumphed in Are, Sweden, and Germany's Felix Neureuther took the most recent in Madonna di Campiglio.

Hirscher won the crystal globe for best slalom skier in the past two seasons. This year, he is trailing his friend and rival Neureuther. The German has 240 points to lead runner-up Hirscher by 24. Neureuther's teammate Fritz Dopfer is another 60 points back in third.

Neureuther, who finished in the top three at each of the last eight World Cup slaloms, can become the first German skier since Armin Bittner 25 years ago to win two slaloms in a row.

"I have to make sure I find my form in slalom," Hirscher said. "For the past few years we did everything we could to catch up in GS and we have neglected slalom a bit."

Since prospect Manuel Fellner has been ruled out for the season, the 25-year-old Hirscher is by far the youngest member of the Austrian slalom team for the worlds, which will also consist of Reinfried Herbst, 36; Benjamin Raich, 35; Mario Matt, 34; and Wolfgang Hoerl, 31.

"Mario Matt can win every race, Reinfried Herbst is strong in training," Hirscher said. "But it would be nonsense to suggest we have the same depth in our slalom team as years ago when I started on the World Cup."

Still, the Austrian team is far ahead of the Americans, who haven't been on a men's slalom podium since Nolan Kasper placed second in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, in 2011.

This season, Ted Ligety came 18th in Levi for the team's best showing. David Chodounsky placed 26th that race and 22nd in Are, but no other American managed to score World Cup points. Even Kasper, who was 13th in the Olympic slalom in Sochi a year ago, hasn't finished a race in the top 30 this season.

"I have confidence in the athletes we have," U.S. Ski Team Alpine director Patrick Riml said. "Maybe it doesn't reflect in the results. When you see the progression they are making, how they are skiing in the Europa Cup, there is potential."

The biggest hopes are on Olympic and world giant slalom champion Ligety, who placed sixth in Zagreb four years ago. But Ligety hasn't had a top-three slalom finish since coming third in Wengen, Switzerland, in 2008.

"Obviously Ted was one of the best slalom skiers in the world when he started leaning toward speed (events)," Riml said. "I don't think he's too far away."

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