Soccer America
Wednesday June 4th, 2008

The U.S. begins its quest to qualify for the 2010 World Cup on June 15 against a team ranked 117th in the world. On Wednesday, the U.S. faces No. 4-ranked Spain (live on at 4 p.m. ET, on delay on ESPN2 at 5:30 p.m.).

A poor showing won't set off any alarm bells regarding the U.S.' qualifying chances, but an impressive performance is what it needs to repair its reputation after its poor effort last week in England. A Guardian reporter, for example, belittled the 2-0 England win by claiming "a set of traffic cones would have put up more resistance" than the American players.

"It took a few days to get over that," said U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra. "A lot of us play over there and we were pretty disappointed with the performance in general."

The loss at Wembley was the first major blemish on coach Bob Bradley's tenure since he took the helm in December 2006.

In '07, Bradley guided the U.S. to the CONCACAF Gold Cup title. The three losses at the Copa América later that summer could be excused for having used a young, inexperienced squad.

Against England, Bradley had at his service his corps of foreign-based players. Instead of indicating that the U.S. national team may be on course to a higher level, the game revealed that the Americans may be stuck on a plateau.

The U.S. rules its region -- especially because most of its games against archrival Mexico are played on American soil -- but its limitations were exposed when it was outplayed by a team that couldn't qualify for the European Championship.

More worrying than the U.S.' lack of resistance against England was its inability to attack creatively. Against Spain, the Americans will again be without Landon Donovan, who is still nursing a groin injury.

In the U.S.' first three games of the year -- a 2-0 win over Sweden, a 2-2 tie with Mexico and a 3-0 win at Poland -- Donovan set up three goals and scored one. Against England, without Donovan, U.S. midfielders chased more than they orchestrated and forwards went without service.

Besides the goal scored against Mexico by Jozy Altidore, who is not on the squad for the Spain game, American forwards have been blanked this year. In fact, four of the U.S.' goals this year have come from defenders after set plays: Oguchi Onyewu (twice), Bocanegra and Eddie Robinson.

Wide midfielder Eddie Lewis, who scored the final goal in the win over Poland, hints that we're unlikely to see a U.S. team that takes the initiative against Spain.

"We'll assume Spain will have a decent percentage of possession and we'll probably look to drop and counter," said Lewis.

But even that strategy requires inventiveness from the midfield and finishing from the forwards.

Clint Dempsey, who may be used up front or in the midfield, and DaMarcus Beasley, are the U.S.' best hope of troubling the Spanish defense and the game provides an enticing test for the pair that struggled against the English.

Up front against England were Josh Wolff and Eddie Johnson, who last scored for the U.S. a year ago. The other striker on the roster vs. Spain is Nate Jaqua.

Also under the spotlight will be central midfielder Michael Bradley. He comes off a stellar, high-scoring season in the Dutch league but he failed to contribute to the attack against England, nor did he bring order to the midfield.

Midfielder Pablo Mastroeni, infamous for his foolish red-card foul in the '06 World Cup in the game against Italy, is back in the squad and has a chance to reestablish himself.

While Spain is prepping for the European Championship, the U.S. plays one more friendly -- hosting Argentina on Sunday -- before facing Barbados in World Cup qualifying.

Facing England, Spain and Argentina puts the U.S. in fine shape for the clash with a Caribbean minnow. Putting the dour performance at Wembley behind it with something special in Spain would be even better.

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