Maybe the big discussion from Saturday's clinic inside Gillette Stadium shouldn't be about starting lineups and the wisdom of U.S. coach Bob Bradley deploying a "B team" in a match that bumps up against an important tournament -- although there is certainly a hardy debate there.
Perhaps the take-away for U.S. Soccer is this: Saturday's clunker against mighty Spain probably should have never been scheduled. It was always a bloodbath waiting to happen, given the crammed June schedule.
The world champs didn't even need all their best players but still absolutely shredded a U.S. lineup in a 4-0 bruising that will always be remembered for the guys who didn't start more than for the unlucky Louies who did. Bradley left five key regulars on the bench initially, resting them for the Gold Cup, which starts for the United States on Tuesday against Canada.
The Spanish haven't always been at the their best in friendlies since leaving South Africa last summer, World Cup trophy in hand. But they were masterful in this one, classy, focused and sharp with ball and at their geometric, angled best without it.
WAHL: Quick postgame thoughts on U.S.-Spain
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard summed it up properly in his post-game comments to ESPN: "It's not a lot of fun when you get beat up," he said. "But we've got to dust ourselves and come back very quickly. ... Sometimes it's good to get knocked on your backside, because it just lets you know how far you still have to go."
Bradley reverted to a more familiar 4-4-2 (rather than an experimental 4-2-3-1 we've seen some since last summer). But he left a lot of know-how on the bench in Carlos Bocanegra, Steve Cherundolo, Michael Bradley, Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan, a powerful demonstration of just how seriously the coach is taking the Gold Cup. In Donovan's case, a slight illness removed any question on his choice. U.S. officials say he should be OK to start Tuesday in Detroit against the improving Canadians.
But the coach's strategic lineup choices left his team badly exposed. How might the first-teamers have stacked up against Spain? We'll never know. Perhaps it was even a blessing in disguise. After all, what if Bradley did deploy the starters, and his side still got picked apart? That would hardly be a boost to the old confidence going into the summer's big tournament.
Things got a little better with Bradley's second-half introductions. Michael Bradley, Cherundolo and Dempsey in particular helped with some veteran savvy. But those subs will add even more to the debate as everyone looks back at this lopsided, men-versus-boys affair: If Bob Bradley was going to use these guys at all ahead of Tuesday's Gold Cup opener, why not just start them in the first place?
At least U.S. Soccer scored a big payday, as a packed house of more than 60,000 watched in suburban Boston. What they saw was Spain at its best. Right from the start it was apparent that only another Tim Howard magic show would stave off a blooding. Santiago Cazorla, a relative new addition to Spain's embarrassment of attacking riches, scored twice. Alvaro Negredo hit for another one, all in a span of 13 minutes for a 3-0 halftime lead. While the U.S. never seriously threatened Spanish goal, the visitors' strikes were worthy and precise -- even if the opportunities were abetted by U.S. marking and tracking of runners that was shockingly poor.
"It couldn't get any worse than it did in the first half," Howard said.
Actually, it possibly could have been worse. Andres Iniesta, perhaps the very best in Spain's remarkable arsenal, didn't even start. The Barcelona playmaker came on at the half, after most of the damage was done. Spain, it seems, can rest some of its best without suffering such a dramatic drop in quality.
GK, Tim Howard, 4 -- The U.S. No. 1 didn't make any technical mistakes. But communication was poor, and Howard has to share in that responsibility. He's a defensive leader, after all.
D/M, Jonathan Spector, 3 -- It's a little tough to assess his afternoon. So much of the trouble came through his area, but that had a lot to do with tendencies of David Silva and David Villa to work the Spanish left side. That said, Spector didn't look good. He played as a midfielder in the second half, as he did in the latter half of his just-completed English season. But he did little to demonstrate at aptitude for the position at this level.
D, Tim Ream, 4 -- Shoddy communication among the two center backs was costly, and failure to read those balls over the top needs to be addressed. In terms of individual battles and attention to positioning, Ream was the perhaps better of the two U.S. center backs, although that's not saying much. He was the better passer, at least.
D, Oguchi Onyewu, 3 -- The big fellow was once again slow in stepping toward Spanish shooters, and he was completely lost on Spain's first goal; he needed to mark someone off the ball or step over to help Spector, but did neither.
D, Eric Lichaj, 3 --The young left fullback, playing on a less familiar side, looked timid and perhaps a little overwhelmed early, getting caught dangerously out of position twice in the first ten minutes. His second half was slightly improved. It's hard to call the Lichaj-at-left-back experiment a bust, since his first test was against such a formidable foe. But it certainly can't be called a success.
M, Sacha Kljestan, 4 -- Starting as a right-sided midfielder, most of his work before the break was tracking back to help Spector. He moved into the middle after halftime to play alongside Bradley, and he was passable in that role, although nothing special.
M, Maurice Edu, 3 -- The Rangers' man never looks good when he's asked to play slightly ahead of another central midfielder, in a more advanced role. So he certainly was never going to excel in such a role against Xabi Alonso and Sergio Busquets, two masters at their craft. Edu needed to press a little higher and shut down Alonso's passing, although a little more help from his forwards would have been nice, too.
M, Jermaine Jones, 3 -- The designated holder in Bradley's four-man midfield never made those spaces a tough place to operate. Yes, it's difficult against mighty Spain. Still, a tackle here, a connection there, it would have added up. He needed to be more.
M, Robbie Rogers, 3 -- His afternoon was about as unremarkable as they come. Precious few touches. Never ran at a defender with the ball. Just not much to say.
F, Juan Agudelo, 4 -- The young Red Bulls striker never looked timid or afraid, and that says something. He never got by anyone, but didn't do anything to hurt his stock.
F, Jozy Altidore, 4 -- He tried to mix it up some but was never much of a match for classy Spanish center back Gerard Pique. With pretty much nil in the way of service or balls supplied from midfield, he didn't have many chances to make things happen.
D, Clarence Goodson, 5 -- Entered at halftime for Onyewu and stepped into challenges better than the center back he replaced. He can't quite establish himself as a starter but never looks out of place when he gets into matches.
D, Steve Cherundolo, 6 -- Replaced Spector at right back at halftime and was having a good match until Fernando Torres slipped in behind him for Spain's fourth. Generally, his experience and defensive instincts helped reverse some of the one-way traffic. He was even getting forward a little, perhaps a bit more even than Spector in front of him, which was a bit odd.
M, Michael Bradley, 6 -- Entered for Jones at halftime and established himself as the day's best U.S. player. He dropped deeper when the U.S. had possession to create better links with defenders and was more studious in reading the passing lanes when Spain began doing its thing. His Alonso-esque ball put Kljestan clean through for the best U.S. chance of the second half.
F, Chris Wondolowski, 4 -- Entered for Altidore at halftime. He busied himself and occasionally found good spots but needed to be a little more scrappy. In his biggest chance to impress yet, the San Jose Earthquakes man needed to manufacture some half chances or find some way to make an impact. Perfect example: he nearly got onto a Lichaj cross on a rare U.S. thrust but got outmuscled without much of a fight.
M, Clint Dempsey, 5 -- Entered for Rogers at halftime; he added a little guile to the U.S. attack. In the end it didn't amount to much, but at least he found ways to claim possession and make the Spanish defense work a smidge.
M, Alejandro Bedoya, 4 -- Entered for Agudelo in the 65th but never put a mark on the game. His heavy first touch on Dempsey's clever ball into space ruined a rare U.S. nibble at Spain's defense. Generally, he needs a few more tricks up his sleeve for this level.