FOXBOROUGH, Mass. – Before kicking off its quest for the CONCACAF Gold Cup against Canada in Detroit on Tuesday night, the United States must overcome one small hurdle: reigning World Cup holders Spain.
The high-profile friendly on Saturday afternoon (4:30 pm ET, ESPN) presents a delicate and daunting task that the US will savor, according to coach Bob Bradley.
“The opportunity to play the world champions is special to all of us,” Bradley told MLSsoccer.com on Friday before holding an open practice at Gillette Stadium. “When you think about what Spain has accomplished in recent years, their success and the way that they play, the number of great players [they have], it's a great test.”
In the last meeting between these two countries, the US registered a shocking 2-0 victory in the semifinals of the 2009 Confederations Cup.
While some of the prominent figures from that day won't take the field at Gillette Stadium on Saturday and the stakes are vastly different, the approaches from the two teams likely will resemble the tactics from the previous meeting.
Spain will almost certainly win the battle for possession and use their short passing game to create opportunities in the attacking third. In order to combat those tactics and reduce the impact of Spain's high-pressure 4-3-3 setup, the US must attempt to force the visitors to play into the wider areas and punish them when they concede possession by pushing forward on the counter.
“When we've played Spain in the past, I think we've had a good sense as to how to try to prevent them coming through the middle so easily,” Bradley said. “We've certainly talked always about the importance of when we get the ball, moving it and making them defend. Any team that plays against Spain or Barcelona, it's pretty hard to get it to 50-50 [in terms of possession]. You always shoot for that.”
The proper formula remains all but useless without the proper execution. Bradley will likely have to juggle his squad with the short turnaround to the vital Gold Cup opening fixture against Canada. It will take a considerable and determined effort from each of the 17 players likely to feature in order for the US to perform well.
“It's going to be a tough game,” US goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “I've played against these guys at both the club level and the international level over the past few years. We have to stand up. It's a long 90 minutes, but we're going to try it make it long for them. Over the past four years, we've played in some pretty big games. If you ask them, we've given them all they can handle.”
While this match will not reflect what the US will see in the Gold Cup and the final result holds no weight, it is a contest that could provide the perfect start to a month that could see the US play seven matches between now and June 25.
“Any time you can get a great game like this against the top team in the world, you test yourself against the best,” US defender Carlos Bocanegra said. “They do all of the things right at the highest level. Maybe the teams we'll play in CONCACAF aren't quite at that level, but if we do well and prepare against these guys and then we play against the CONCACAF teams at that level, that's great for us if we play like [we did against Spain].”