When the United States national team takes the field against Spain on Saturday (4:30 pm ET; ESPN, Univisión), it will do so in a packed house. More than 60,000 are expected to be in attendance at Gillette Stadium to watch the European and World Cup champs — quite simply, the best team in the world.
Bob Bradley counters with the most impressive team he can field. Only Jay DeMerit, Ricardo Clark and Charlie Davies are absent — and understandably so — from the squad that knocked off La Furia Roja in the semifinals of the 2009 Confederations Cup.
The teams come into the match with different priorities. For the Americans, the tilt represents their only pre-Gold Cup warm-up. Bradley will want to work some combinations, access the form of his charges and settle on a line up for the opening match of the regional tournament, which takes place three days later against Canada in Detroit. Vincente del Bosque, however, simply wants to give his players some minutes and pray they don't get hurt after a long European season. They will seek victory — revenge for the Confed Cup would be nice — but don't expect a life-and-death performance.
Both pre- and postgame, Bradley and his players will talk about the desire to win. And though they would like to make it two in a row against the Spaniards, the score line is secondary. The real concern is the Gold Cup, and there are plenty of questions that need to be answered. In the back, can Oguchi Onyewu, Clarence Goodson and Tim Ream handle the middle or does Carlos Bocanegra need to come in from the left flank? If he does, will that deploy Jonathan Bornstein or Eric Lichaj out wide?
Moving forward, can Maurice Edu, Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley figure out their spacing in the center of the field? Can Jozy Altidore be effective by himself at the top of the formation or does he need a strike partner? If he does, who starts: Chris Wondolowski or Juan Agudelo? Or maybe the Earthquakes forward, whose work rate the coach loves, takes time away from the younger Altidore?
So many questions, so little time … on the ball, that is. Bradley's troops aren't likely to have the majority of possession, which will make it easier to answer defensive queries and more difficult to find solutions in the attack. But that might be good, since the back line and the midfield trio are the bigger issues. The US should try to possess when they win the ball. It's an opportunity for Edu, Bradley and Jones to work the ball around and up field. The match is also a chance for the coach to try different combinations and, more importantly, get his players game minutes while keeping them fresh for what could be a stretch of seven games over 22 days.
The good news is that the Americans won't face a better squad in the Gold Cup. The biggest question is whether Spain are too good an opponent for the US to get a sense of themselves in the moment.
Led by the Barcelona trio, Gerard Piqué, Sergio Busquets and Andrés Iniesta — Barça's goalkeeper, Víctor Valdés, is also on the roster, but will back up Iker Casillas — the side that dances into Gillette Stadium is second to none. And that's before you add Casillas' Real Madrid teammates Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso and so on and so forth. The point: Spain are good. Really, really good.
They will look to ping the ball around the New England Patriots home stadium, playing a possession game reminiscent of Tom Brady's Patriots. The short passes will come fast and furiously, but the Spaniards won't be afraid to strike a killing blow when the opportunity presents itself (think David Villa as Randy Moss circa 2007). They make 1,000 cuts, then chop your head off with a guillotine.
Like Bradley, del Bosque will ration the minutes of his stars. Many of them made deep runs into the Champions League and virtually everyone is coming off a long, torturous European season. So expect the manager to make his allotted six changes, which should throw off the well-oiled machine just a bit. But only just.
United States: Tim Ream
The New York Red Bulls center back has struggled recently in MLS play, but he changes the roster if he can figure out his game. He pairs better with Onyewu and Goodson than they do with each other, and his passing will be needed to spark counterattacks against the better Gold Cup opponents. If he's solid against Spain, he will start against Canada.
Spain: Sergio Busquets
It will be a great challenge for the Americans to see if they can bypass the secret ingredient in Barcelona's El Bulli. Busquets is quietly one of the best holding midfielders in the world, a destroyer with sublime passing ability that will be required even more in the absence of Xavi. This is the ultimate test for the middle of the US formation.
US: Tim Howard; Steve Cherundolo, Oguchi Onyewu, Tim Ream, Carlos Bocanegra; Maurice Edu, Michael Bradley, Jermaine Jones, Clint Dempsey, Landon Donovan; Jozy Altidore
Spain: Iker Casillas; Sergio Ramos, Álvaro Arbeloa, Gerard Piqué, Joan Capdevilla; Sergio Busquets, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso; David Silva, Pedro, David Villa
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.