This is a big June for Bob Bradley's United States national team, and there's no easing into it. Far from it, in fact, for a U.S. side that cannot be accused of shrinking from quality opposition.
The Gold Cup may loom large for its long-term implications, but the month begins right in the belly of the whale, a clash with mighty Spain. The reigning world champ, incomparable in silky skill and peerless at the moment in world soccer, is the latest U.S. opponent in a series of recent friendlies that read like a who's who of world soccer.
A looming calendar conundrum adds extra pressure. With the important Gold Cup starting for the Americans on Tuesday there are hints that Bradley might prioritize the tournament opener over Saturday's friendly -- a risky play considering Spain's quality and the match's high-profile status.
Bradley leaned mostly on starters last August in a 2-0 loss to Brazil in New Jersey. And two months ago most of the same group was pressed to hold talented Argentina to a 1-1 draw at the same ground.
Those were both quality opponents, clearly, but they weren't the graceful and mesmerizing champs. That's Spain, which recently joined an elite fraternity as the eighth nation to claim a World Cup. Now 17 of the Spanish travelers who danced victoriously last summer in South Africa are in suburban Boston for Saturday's friendly at Gillette Stadium. David Villa, who led the Spanish scoring last year in Africa, is one of six players here from Barcelona's fabulous side, fresh off a Champions League coronation that concluded gloriously in last Saturday's master class over Manchester United.
Goalkeeper Victor Valdes, center back Gerard Pique, midfielders Sergio Busquets and Andres Iniesta and forward Pedro are the others from FC Barcelona. While the Nou Camp luminaries might be on fans' minds, Real Madrid did stamp five names on Spain's roster, too -- and the team from Estadio Santiago Bernabéu isn't too shabby, either. Real Madrid's reps include goalkeeper Iker Casillas, defenders Alvaro Arbeloa, Raul Albiol and Sergio Ramos and midfielder Xabi Alonso. Throw in a couple of other stars, like Chelsea striker Fernando Torres, and you can see where the United States will be up against it Saturday.
Then again, plenty of those same names were on the field two years ago during the United States' Confederations Cup stunner over Spain. One of the high points of Bradley's five years in charge of the U.S. program (which now covers 73 matches) was surely the 2-0 victory on that June night in Bloemfontein, South Africa. Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore struck as their side smashed Spain's international record 15-game winning streak, and a 35-game unbeaten streak that had stretched from December 1993 to January 1996.
Spain certainly rebounded, starting rather slowly at last year's World Cup but finishing with a flourish. It was so highly regarded by the end of the month-long tournament that even the typically artistic Dutch declined an attempt to match Spain's skill, taking a strategic bludgeon to the final instead -- but still falling short.
The stylish Spaniards are certainly a crowd draw. Who wouldn't want to see a side that moves the ball even better than Argentina, which thoroughly flummoxed a helpless United States defense for a half in March? The game will apparently set state attendance records at a venue that hasn't necessarily drawn that well recently. The U.S. team tends to pop up frequently in Foxboro, Mass., but the last 10 matches at Gillette have averaged just over 18,000 in attendance. Contrast that to the 57,500 tickets already snatched up for Saturday's clash.
It would all arrange a wonderful start to the summer international season but for that tricky timing. Bradley's own 23-man selection -- with Alejandro Bedoya having replaced the injured Benny Feilhaber in camp -- gets just two days of rest before opening Gold Cup play. One of those is a travel day as the team scoots over to Detroit to face mercurial Canada on Tuesday. Counting Saturday's match, the U.S. could play seven matches over 22 days -- essentially once every third day over three weeks.
Yes, rolling out a weaker version against Spain could spell widely-watched disaster. On the other hand, Canada has some talent and isn't exactly a pushover, and a bad result Tuesday in Detroit could put the summer in crisis mode right off the bat. Bradley has long stressed the Gold Cup importance for its ultimate reward, a spot in the 2013 Confederations Cup in Brazil, a World Cup test run that gives the small field of participants a leg up for Brazil 2014. Or so the theory goes.
With six substitutions allowed Saturday (standard for friendlies), the coach has some wiggle room. So it's possible that some first-teamers start but get lifted at halftime. Either way, expect the minutes to be carefully managed for Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey and others.
So the myriad U.S. questions begin getting a fresh round of answers on Saturday. Is Bradley still committed to the 4-2-3-1 experiment that just can't achieve liftoff? Is center back Oguchi Onyewu still a commanding presence, or has Tim Ream lapped him? Can Jermaine Jones and Michael Bradley finally gain requisite synchronization as a central midfield tandem? Is there growth and improvement in young strikers Jozy Altidore and Juan Agudelo? Can the MLS star Chris Wondolowski graduate into a difference-maker status at this level?
More specifically against Spain, the back line will be under special duress. Spain's midfielders, even without the absent Xavi Hernandez, are masters at holding possession and then finding strikers in good places. Lapses in concentration tend to be punished severely. Steve Cherundolo remains the solid incumbent at right back, but what Bradley does with the other three spots is anybody's guess. And, as always, left back remains a puzzle, one especially ripe for exposure Saturday. Eric Lichaj finished his season at Leeds at left back, so he might possibly be a solution.
"Carlos Bocanegra and Jonathan Bornstein obviously give us two left backs to begin with but we have seen Eric Lichaj play as of late at left back," Bradley said to reporters. "Jonathan Spector has played some at left back too, so we do think we have some different possibilities. ... Carlos, in the latter part of the season for St. Étienne played a good amount as a center back so again that's all a part of the versatility that fits in well when you put a roster like this together."
And then there's the Freddy Adu factor; an attack that remains overly dependent on set-piece strikes needs some creative pep, so the wandering attacker is getting another chance in the U.S. shirt.
There does seem to be a greater awareness of place and opportunity within Adu now. "There were a lot of things in the past, obviously, that I could have handled better, that I didn't," Adu told reporters after practice this week, just a couple of days before he turned 22. "That was partly my fault. Well, not partly, but it was my fault. Like I said, I have learned. I have been listening to my teammates and coaches."