U.S. team undaunted at facing Spain
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa -- If coach Bob Bradley and the U.S. national team think they beat the longest odds possible by overcoming two opening losses and booking a place in the semifinals of the Confederations Cup, they might need to reassess that perspective.
The reward for their heroics against Egypt is a semifinal matchup with none other than the world's No. 1 team, Spain, which currently is riding a 35-match unbeaten streak.
After snatching a 3-0 win over the African champion in their final group match Sunday, much of the pressure will be off the Americans when they play the European champ Wednesday in Bloemfontein, and the U.S. team is anxious to take its best shot at a side that has won 15 matches in a row and proved unbeatable for almost three years running.
"We had a surprise in getting through the group -- a big surprise," said forward Charlie Davies, who scored the first goal of the Americans' victory Sunday. "Now we have to get focused again and get ready for Spain. Spain's a big test, the best team in the world right now, 35 games unbeaten, so it's definitely easier for us to go into the game knowing that maybe it's their time to lose."
Even under normal circumstances, the U.S. would face a daunting test against the team generally recognized as the best in the world right now. But the irregular scheduling of the Confederations Cup makes the task at hand more challenging.
|U.S. men's schedule|
|U.S. vs. Spain
Mangaung/Bloemfontein, South Africa
2:25 p.m. ET, ESPN, ESPN360.com
The Americans will play Spain having had only two days' rest after the match against Egypt late Sunday. They also have only one day to prepare in the southern city of Bloemfontein, after making the relatively long trip south from Rustenburg on Monday. When they arrived, the Americans found FIFA had yet to make concrete arrangements for a training field for them.
The Spanish, on the other hand, have been in Bloemfontein for more than a week, after playing its last two group matches here. The Europeans come in fully rested after a relaxed 2-0 victory over South Africa on Saturday.
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque rotated his lineup at will in the first three matches, using all but one player on his 23-man roster as his team strolled through what looked from the outset like a less than competitive group. After rampaging to a 5-0 opening victory against New Zealand, the Spanish eased off the throttle a bit but still cruised to wins over Iraq and the hosts. However, the Spaniards aren't taking the matchup against the U.S. lightly.
"All the games now will have a certain level of difficulty, we know there is no easy rival at this point," said Del Bosque. "[The Americans] have a very aggressive midfield and they don't play around. All four midfielders can have an offensive effect, and [Landon] Donovan is very dangerous when given space.
"[Clint] Dempsey is another one with a good aerial game and he can hurt you in many ways. The other day, they played with a player next to [Jozy] Altidore that we hadn't seen before, [Charlie] Davies, and he created a lot of danger as well. We have to be careful of their strengths, and a quick attack is one of them. We saw how Egypt played against Italy and the other day they were completely swept away by the speed of the American attack."
Added midfielder Albert Riera, "The U.S. are very compact and working as a team. They have very good players in front. Two or three offensive players are doing things very well, but the most important thing for them is the teamwork."
Coach Bradley is more than aware that the U.S. players will need to be at their best to counter Spain's talent.
"It's a short turnaround, and playing them is such a challenge," Bradley said. "For club teams, it's playing Barcelona, and for national teams, it's Spain. They have many of the same players, their ability to play in and out of little spaces and keep the game moving. It's exciting. We know we have our work cut out for us."
In rolling to victories in their first three games, the Spanish equaled Brazil's record unbeaten streak in international play. A semifinal win against the U.S. would be the record breaker, but the U.S. figures to provide a much stiffer test than any of Spain's first-round opponents. The Americans last played Spain in a friendly match in Santander last summer, falling 1-0 in a tightly contested game.
"We lost 1-0, but there were chances in that game," midfielder Michael Bradley said. "You play them in the semifinal of a big competition like this and you know it's going to be that much more competitive, that much harder. We're excited. This is why you play. You get to the semifinal of a big competition like this and everything's on the line."
The friendly with the U.S. last summer was one of the closer calls in Spain's long winning streak. The Americans played solidly in defense and had a few opportunities to take the lead but were unable to convert. The match was decided by a late moment of individual brilliance from midfielder Xavi.
"I think their [the U.S.] football has evolved. In the friendly they did some things that complicated us. They've improved their level, especially offensively, they have some great players and it won't be an easy game," said Xavi.
"He's one of the greatest players," Bradley said of the Barcelona playmaker. "He is so precise in the way he can find little spaces, find the ball quickly and move, and get it back. In his ability to control the game and dictate the tempo, he's one of the best players in the world."
Spain boasts not just Xavi, but a collection of some of the world's greatest players at the top of their games. Striker Fernando Torres is coming off a Premier League season in which he scored 14 goals in just 20 games. In the opening match against New Zealand, the Liverpool man scored a hat trick in the first 17 minutes. His strike partner, David Villa, is fast approaching becoming Spain's all-time leading scorer (his total of 31 trails only Raul) and added to his tally with a top-quality goal against South Africa.
No matter the outcome of Wednesday's game, the U.S. will return to the field Sunday for its final game of the Confederations Cup. The semifinal loser plays a consolation match for third place, in which the Americans could equal their best-ever finish at a FIFA tournament. But American players refuse to accept the idea that, facing Spain, they already have one foot in that third-place match. After achieving what seemed impossible against Egypt, their dreams are now of a Confederations Cup final.
"Good team, big challenge and we're looking forward to it," said Landon Donovan, who has captained the U.S. team in South Africa. "It's gonna be fun. It's a good team, a very good team, but we're not willing to write it off and say it's a loss. We're gonna go for it."
Brent Latham covers U.S. soccer for ESPNsoccernet. Based in Dakar, Senegal, he also covers West Africa for Voice of America radio and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.