Commentary: Keep the US loss to Spain in perspective
Honestly, for all the negative rhetoric spewed about United States national team's match on Saturday in Massachusetts, you'd think they lost a game that actually mattered.
Here's the truth: Of the seven games Bob Bradley's squad will likely play over the next 22 days, the drubbing to Spain was by far the least important.
Yes, it was embarrassing, ugly and worthy of scorn. Vincente del Bosque's troops ran over the Americans while smiling throughout. The display was frightening and exciting, as beautiful as it was terrifying. The US were constantly half a second late, which against Spain is akin to not showing up at all.
But bruised egos will heal. And quickly. There is, after all, a more pressing matter: the Gold Cup.
The Americans open up the regional tournament on Tuesday, 1,000 miles away in Detroit. And while you can pitch Spain as a warm-up, it really wasn't. It was a way for the US Soccer Federation to grab the most on-field attention it's had since last summer, and make some cash, too — 65,000 wouldn't show up to watch the US take on Colombia or another team that might have been a more appropriate tune-up — and for Bradley to give his guys a kickaround.
The real warm-up for the Gold Cup? That would be the group stage of the tournament. Say what you will about the increasing talent of Julian de Guzman-led Canada, Guadeloupe and their upset record in the tournament, and the always tough Panama, but the Americans have three matches to find their form before the knockout stage begins. They can even lose a game in Group C play and still easily qualify for the next round.
When viewed in that light, the stinker against Spain was just that: an ugly affair that is over. Moving on.
That doesn't mean we can't draw a few conclusions, however.
First, the back line — once a strength — is a concern. Oguchi Onyewu is not the player he was before the knee injury. His timing is off, his confidence lost, his feel for the game absent. His loan stint at FC Twente helped a bit, but he still looks lost. He is not the future, and the transition to the Tim Ream era needs to start in the Gold Cup.
Although the New York Red Bulls center back was overmatched against Spain, he can use the three group-stage games to get comfortable. His passing out will be essential during matches in which the Americans dominate possession. The pairing of Clarence Goodson and Ream is the answer, with Carlos Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo providing support, leadership and experience from the flanks.
And then there's Jermaine Jones. The good news about the midfielder was that he didn't look intimidated by Spain. He was perhaps the only American who wasn't scared when the game started. The bad news: He didn't play well or seem to have an idea where he needed to be.
Simply put, he looks uncomfortable on the field. That needs to change. Jones can be a vital part of the USMNT, but he needs time to adjust. He'll get there with a little patience.
Which leads to the major lesson from Saturday's affair: It's Michael Bradley's team.
The importance of the midfielder has long been undervalued, but he is the most important player on the field. We saw this against Spain, where his strong second half was one of the only highlights. Bradley's efforts are more subtle than his bull-headed play would indicate — although he does have an knack for finding the back of the net on broken plays — but they are vital to the success of the team.
He's not the most skilled player on the field, but he is the one who creates the mentality the US need to succeed.
Since the World Cup, Bradley has taken more of an obvious leadership role, sitting for interviews, speaking with fans and generally doing more to show he wants the position. It's the next phrase of his maturation, a necessary one as Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and the stars of the 2010 cycle age.
They will continue to produce, as will Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo and the older veterans, but Bradley is the leader of the next half-generation. We saw that on the field at Gillette Stadium.
Saturday was a disaster, but that revelation might have been enough. Now the real work begins.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.