By Jon Levy
Disclaimer: I’m a big believer in scheduling a warm-up friendly match right before a big tournament. That being said…
This match is basically a sideshow. Sure, the revenge storyline is in play for La Furia Roja, but will it actually manifest itself on the pitch? The 2009 Confederations Cup was (to quote Sir Alex Ferguson out of context) a pot worth winning, but its importance pales in comparison to the Euro and World Cup trophies currently resting on the Spanish futbol mantle. I’m having trouble buying into any anger angle that various media outlets are ascribing to Iberia’s own Feel Good Inc. If Spain starts all eight of the players from this squad that also participated in the 2009 loss, does that mean they’re out for the scalp they missed out on? Maybe. Maybe not. I guess I don’t really care. And Brazil won that tournament anyway.
What’s more interesting and frustrating from my perspective is the predicament this match puts the American team in. Let’s kick the ballistics:
Ideally, just prior to the start of a tournament you want to take on a team whose playing style will allow you to work on something… anything really. In this case, the Yanks, who are still struggling to get a handle on their new formation, would have done well to play against a team who might allow them to hold the ball a bit and “run the system.”
You want to play a team that mimics the playing style of a future tournament opponent. If this is not possible, you want to at least schedule a team whose level of play is something akin to what you’ll see in your tournament.
The US adhered perfectly to these principles in scheduling The Sendoff Series and subsequent Australia friendly prior to the 2010 World Cup. Note the makeshift chart below to see for yourself:
Netherlands – England level of talent if not style of play, world class opposition
Czech Republic – a mid-level UEFA team that could have qualified for the World Cup
Turkey – Slovenia-esque squad, rabid in supporting each other in fast-paced attacks
Australia – balanced defense-first team against which we could run our system, Serbia clone – who at the time were a possible knockout stage opponent
As such, these matches all made sense. I thought the same thing when we scheduled the South American matches for this March.
Argentina – Mexican style attack and defense with superior talent, perfect primer for El Tri, like swinging a bat with weighted donuts before stepping to the plate
Paraguay – a good team, and one of very few South American squads to purposefully take the air out of the ball like El Salvador, Panama, or a couple other CONCACAF teams.
And now comes the Spain match.
Spain – Ummm… great prep for taking on FC Barcelona or maybe a particularly on-form Arsenal side?
That’s what making the USMNT fan in me upset. But there’s another side to this coin, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it.
This match is a huge marketing win for US Soccer. And contrary to what it might seem like in your circle, the sport still badly needs marketing here in The States. The Spain match brings the World Cup champions to Foxboro, and gives every media outlet a reason to rehash what’s looking more and more like the greatest victory in USMNT history. The match has already generated over three times the usual Gillette Stadium US Soccer attendance in ticket sales, and will probably end up being a sellout game that posts big time TV ratings. So yeah, the scheduling of this match was both strategic and important.
But call it in a necessary evil in my book. Let’s hope the team avoids both injury and embarrassment.
What to watch for on the pitch:
Spain will probably start a mixture of regulars and new parts, but don’t expect them to play anything but their usual, and now familiar, tiki-taka style. They’ll dominate possession as usual, leaving the US to figure out how to respond. From what we’ve seen from Bob Bradley squads, they’ll respond in one of two ways. They might give in to frustration and basically attack the ball in losing positions or wait for it to come directly to them. We saw this in the Argentina match, in the first half (well, first 65 minutes) of last March’s Netherlands match, and in the second half of the team’s most recent trip to the Azteca. Remember that helpless feeling you got while watching these sorry displays? I know I do. It’s demoralizing to watch your team finally gain possession of the ball after an eternity, only to have them squander it before you can complete a sip of your beer.
Obviously Yanks fans will be hoping the boys go in the opposite direction, defending responsibly and furiously, with both their bodies and their brains, and using their fewer chances on the attack to greater effect than their foes. Bobbo’s charges did this to a “T” in the last matchup against Spain and in Mexico’s visit to the US in World Cup qualifying.
I can’t make specific predictions on the US lineup because of the aforementioned semi-ridiculous nature of this match, but I’d expect something close to Bobbo’s true starting lineup to kickoff the match, and all six subs to be used, a few of them at halftime. We’ll also likely see another far-from-the-finished-product version of the new Yanks formation. Don’t expect the team to have the ball for long enough stints to mount a lengthy spell of sustained attack. I hope that at some point during the Gold Cup we’ll get to witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational battle station, but that’s not happening against the European and World Champions. And while I don’t have high expectations for ball or player movement, I think the defense should again be solid enough to perform reasonably well against yet another top level scoring team, mostly because history indicates the Yanks will play hard and track back responsibly, especially when they play a top-level opponent.
US Player to Watch: Oguchi Onyewu
Remember that time I wrote a whole match preview about how the USA/ESP game was a colossal waste of time before a hugely important tournament? Well that goes for the team as a whole, and pretty much everyone on the roster not named Oguchi Onyewu. If Gooch is back to full fitness, this is exactly the stage on which to show Bob Bradley and the world. We know Gooch. We love Gooch. But we’ve seen him play at a bunch of different levels this year while recovering from minor knocks and his major patellar tendon injury. A healthy Onyewu brings size, strength, mobility, responsibility, and a scoring threat to the table (along with his once trademark long throw-ins). A semi-fit Onyewu can likely sit at the end of the US bench in case of an injury to Ream, Goodson, or Boca. If Gooch is ready to help the Yanks win the Gold Cup, another 90 minutes of brilliance akin to his last effort against the Spanish will likely win him the job. If he’s not fit, Spain will surely exploit him, and while painful to watch, we’ll even be able to see it on TV. And so, unfortunately, will every club with interest as Gooch’s long-fall from Milan continues.
Honorable Mention: Keep an eye out for the kickoff of Freddy Adu’s Summer 2011 Redemption Tour
Spain Player to Watch: David Villa
He’s a bad, bad man, and he’s almost always on target for the national team. Villa just scored in the Champions League final, as did Spain and Barca teammate Pedro, but David is the more dangerous player for Spain. The dude’s elevated himself into the “best striker in the world” conversation, and rightfully so. I don’t even know what else to say. Hopefully he gets a cold and doesn’t play in the match? At least they didn’t bring Xavi?
Honorable Mention: Keep an eye out for the kickoff of Fernando Torres’ Summer 2011 Redemption Tour
Prediction: USA 1 – 2 Spain
Call me a cockeyed optimist, but I think the Yanks score. Puyol was left at home, so maybe we find one on a set piece? Or maybe Altidore punks his buddy Capdevila again? Personally, I’d like to see Mo Edu shot-feint Busquets into falling down, then launch a twenty yard jackhammer into the top right corner, and then say something polite in Scottish to Sergio… Too much to ask for?
Enjoy the match, and Go USA!
Jon Levy is Co-Founder and Associate Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and you can and should follow him on Twitter at @TYAC_Jon. He lives in Washington D.C.