When the United States takes the pitch tomorrow versus Spain, there will be more on the line than most people realize. Just like when the Yanks faced off against Argentina and Brazil in equally meaningless friendlies, there will be a lot of pride at stake in the match. True, the U.S. has beaten Spain before in the Confederations Cup and created a blueprint for how to defeat the Spanish (although only Switzerland could follow it in the World Cup), but that was then and this is now. Friendlies of this quality and crowd size demand another good result for the U.S.
But there is another result that matters beyond the final score, and that is the injury score card after the match. The United States faces Canada in Detroit on Tuesday in their first Group C match of the Gold Cup. Bob Bradley has to be careful to make sure that key players are healthy and fairly well rested for a tricky opponent in Canada: while no one will confuse Les Rouges with Spain, they do have some good players like Julian de Guzman, DeRo, and Atiba Hutchinson of PSV Eindhoven. The Yanks cannot take this squad lightly, so starters need to be on hand for the match.
For Spain, there is some benefit to this match as well. Most of the World Cup-winning squad will be making the trip save Carles Puyol, Xavi, and Cesc Fabregas, but the team has had a rough run of results recently. While having no trouble in the Euro 2012 qualifiers, they barely beat Mexico last summer and lost to Argentina and Portugal in recent friendlies, allowing a combined 8 goals. There is a danger in letting such a successful and talented squad get too comfortable and losing their edge, and Vincente Del Bosque can use revenge for the Confederations Cup as a little bit of motivation for his team.
So both sides have reasons to play hard on Saturday, but both have reasons to be cautious (Spain plays Venezuela in a friendly on Tuesday). So considering all of these factors, what is a successful outcome for the U.S. in this match? Here is a checklist of things the U.S. needs to do to consider this friendly a good one:
Don’t get blown out: This may be an obvious one, but it’s an important one. The resounding victory by Brazil last year really cast questions on Bob Bradley’s leadership especially coming on the heals of a disappointing World Cup run. While the momentum for the Yanks has been positive so far, the team really needs to play well to not begin the more important Gold Cup with questions over there head. A victory is not necessary, but a 3-0 pasting would be a bad result.
Keep everyone healthy: The thought is that Bradley will play his best XI or close to it for the first half and liberally use his six substitutions in the second. It is critical that every U.S. player, but especially the starters, come off the pitch relatively healthy after the match. This may be more difficult for the players like Dempsey who are coming off a long league season. But remaining healthy goes beyond physical ailments, it is also a matter of fatigue. The Spanish style can wear a team out, especially if they score early, and when they have possession the U.S. will have to chase to regain possession. With such a quick turn around between games, Donovan etc. will have to make sure they don’t get caught up in the moment and over-exert themselves.
“Bench” players contribute positively: With the second string getting so much playing time, this will be a great chance for some players to make an instant impact on the team. If given a chance on the pitch, can a Chris Wondolowski or Jonathan Spector play well enough to position themselves as potential first-team players in the players in front of them falter? This will be especially important for the two forwards behind Altidore, Agudelo and Wondolowski. Agudelo has U.S. fans salivating at his potential, and another great game may force Bradley to start him in important Gold Cup matches. Wondolowski will want to prove he deserved his second call-up and establish his niche as an American international at a thin position.
Questions about the backline begin to be settled: This is the older part of the team with key players like Bocanegra and Cherundelo already on the wrong side of age 30. The U.S. already has some flexibility here as most of the defenders can play multiple positions, but this also means they are not necessarily world-class at one position. Spain is a great chance for Bob Bradley to bring out his idea of a starting back four for the friendly which he can use in the Gold Cup. This stretch of matches, beginning with Spain, is a chance for him to start deciding if Lichaj can be his starting right back or if Ream or Gooch are the answer at centerback.