Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Preview: Spain v. U.S.

Early on, the question seemed to be whether Brazil or Italy would be playing Spain in the Confederations Cup semis. But, the United States would have none of it, and put all the pieces together against Egypt to get the result they needed. Their prize? Playing against what is unquestionably the best side in the world right now. While Spain are the heavy favorites, the promised Spain-Brazil final could go the way or this year's Lakers-Cavs final if the States or South Africa get a result. And of those two, the States likely has a better shot of crashing the party.

Spain is expected to run a 4-3-1-2 lineup with Casillas in goal, Puyol and Pique in the center of the defense and Sergio Ramos and Capdevilla as wingbacks. The midfield will almost certainly be anchored by Xabi Alonso with Riera on the left. Cazorla would play on the right wing, although no one should be surprised to see Cesc out there to shore up the interior of the midfield, one of the U.S.'s brighter spots with Bradley and Clark/Feilhaber. Up top, who else, Villa and Torres. Just two of the best strikers in the world.

For the U.S., Howard will make return in goal, with Onyewu and Demerit in the center of the defense. If Bocanegra passes a late fitness test, expect him to replace Demerit. Spector and Bornstein will man the defensive wings. Clark and Bradley will play in the midfield, with Altidore up top. Dempsey, Donovan, and Davies will be on hand as well.

It's obvious who has the better players, with Spain's lineup made up of stars and starters from some of the world's best teams. But the days of MLS players making up most of the U.S. national team are gone. Most of the Americans have played or currently play in the second and third tier European leagues. In this way, they've seen top flight opposition much more often then their predecessors, and shouldn't be stunned by what's in front of them.

Better yet, the States played Spain very tough a little over a year ago, during a Euro preparation friendly, when only a second half goal from Xavi gave Spain the 1-0 win. While it was in the Euro that Spain actually came into their own, the side that played against the U.S. was no makeshift squad - all the stars were there. Add to this the fact that the U.S. has nothing to lose, and has seemingly begun to believe in itself, and we could be in for a very interesting matchup in Bloemfontein.

The keys for a competitive match, and perhaps another miracle, will be to exhibit poise and patience in the face of Spain's likely overwhelming possession of the ball. The centerbacks will have to bring their A-game as their major advantage, height, will be of little use against a Spain side that exploits quick interior passing and darting runs to perfection. Bradley must try and take as much control as he can in the midfield, a daunting task with the two figurative and litera "X" factors in Spain's midfield. Finally, the State's counters must develop quickly and incisively. Altidore must do better than he has this tournament, and Dempsey's scoring touch needs to figure prominantly. Donovan, the best American on the ball, needs to have a big game as well, as he and Bradley may determine how the counters develop, and what possession the U.S. can have. A strong Spector would help as well, keeping Capdevilla occupied with defense instead of pushing forward. Otherwise, the U.S. could well end up locked in their half for much of 90 minutes.

For Spain the key is, well, to play like Spain. Puyol and Pique have seen much better attackers than what the U.S. can offer, and shouldn't be tested by the indiviual players as much as they may be by good team play. Puyol's lack of speed in particular may be an issue against a younger U.S. side. Patience, possession, and passing are Spain's virtues, and may be all they need to beat the U.S. That said, Spain suffered against a well organized Iraq team that was comfortable without the ball. Coach Bradley's interviews seem to imply that his team is ready to give up possession and wait for the counter. While some say this plays right into Spain's hands, I don't think the U.S. has any other option. To fight fire with fire against Spain is to try and out-attack and out-pass them. Brazil may be the only side in the world that could possibly do that as of today.

Prediction: Too much talent, skill and speed for the Americans to handle. While last year's friendly shows the U.S. can play with Spain, this Spanish side is hitting its stride before the World Cup with a stretch of 35 unbeaten and 15 consecutive wins. Self-belief and nothing to lose can only take you so far. Spain wins a competitive match with their last goal coming late, 3-1.

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