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,
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.
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.