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Can the USA beat Spain?
by Ridge Mahoney, June 24th, 2009 7AM

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[CONFEDERATIONS CUP] As a reward for stunning Egypt, 3-0, in its final group game and squeaking into the semifinals, the USA gets a date with European champion Spain, whose run of 15 straight wins includes a 1-0 victory over the Americans just over a year ago. And, apparently, Spain coach Vincente del Bosque has a higher opinion of the U.S. team than do many American fans.

"They had Italy against the ropes and heavily beat Egypt, who were until yesterday the revelation of the tournament," said Del Bosque to fifa.com in advance of Wednesday's Confederations Cup semifinal in Mangaung/Bloemfontein (2:30 p.m. ET, ESPN, Univision). "They are fast, well-organized, and they will come into the match with plenty of desire."

Del Bosque is taking a politically correct slant in his comments, as would just about any coach in such circumstances, and particularly one in charge of a smoothly running unit that has won 15 straight games and not experienced defeat in 35 matches. Yet for Spain, which enthralled the world a year ago through its swift, skillful soccer while capturing its first European Championship in 44 years, there's the danger of overlooking the USA with a probable date with Brazil looming in the final on Sunday.

By beating South Africa, 2-0, in its final group game, Spain broke Brazil's record for consecutive wins. Yet del Bosque gives great credit to his predecessor, Luis Aragones, who melded a team long divided by factions - political, sporting and cultural -- to win the European title. Aragones, in his second stint in charge of Spain, stepped down and in his stead the team has won 13 in a row under del Bosque.

"When I arrived in the role about a year ago I said that my plan was to give continuity to this group of players and to their style of play," said del Bosque. "We've built on that, we are making the necessary changes and we will stay on this line."

Prior to the Euros, Spain tuned up for the competition by beating the USA, 1-0, in Santander. Not until the 81st minute did Xavi Hernandez, cited by U.S. coach Bob Bradley as among the best on Spain's talent-rich roster, score the goal that divided the teams. Xavi is one of many Spanish returnees from that game as well as the Euros. Among the most dangerous American attackers that day was Eddie Johnson, who ran down two long passes from Freddy Adu to score a goal disallowed for offside and fire a hard shot saved by keeper Iker Casillas.

Johnson is not on the U.S roster and Adu has yet to play a minute in this competition, yet an attack that scored three goals against Egypt and created numerous other opportunities has Bradley and players hopeful of causing Spain at least a few problems in its defensive third of the field.

"We have to have the ability to put their defenders under pressure," says Bradley. "We have to have the ability at the right moments to be aggressive and create chances. It takes a good game plan but more than that, it takes complete efforts from our players, and commitment. We know these games take all the qualities and that's what happens when you play against the best."

Working against the USA is fatigue. It beat Egypt on Sunday, Spain took care of South Africa Saturday. In a compressed format, an extra day of rest can be significant.

"Clearly having a day more in this tournament would have helped, and we were also playing for our lives in the third game, whereas Spain probably had it a little bit easier, but regardless at this point, you don't worry about that part," says Donovan, who didn't play last year in Santander. "If we're prepared we have a chance to win."

A mesmerizing array of constantly shifting, and shrinking and enlarging, triangles of players by which Spain moves the ball can be as aggravating as it is bewildering to those in pursuit. Spain can play out of tight pockets, spray balls over myriad distances, connect with combinations of nearly limitless variation, and strike suddenly at the proper moment.

"A big part of fighting against them is not being frustrated that they have the ball," says Landon Donovan. "A lot of times they wear teams down that way and you start feeling you're never going to get the ball or have a chance, but also like Bob said, the other side to that is try to put them under pressure a little bit and see how they react to that."

U.S. defender Carlos Bocanegra - who captained the team last year in Santander - has resumed full training after missing the first three games with a strained hamstring. A fitness test the morning of the game will determine his availability. As to the lineup, Bradley said only that Tim Howard - who conceded six goals against Brazil and Italy - will replace Brad Guzan, the starter in the shutout against Egypt.

So adept on and off the ball are its players that Spain can maintain possession for interminable periods. Its defense has yet to concede a goal at this tournament, having defeated New Zealand, Iraq and the host by combined scores of 8-0. Forwards David Villa and Fernando Torres, midfielder Xavi, defender Carlos Puyol, and Casillas are all among the world's elite at their positions.

The Americans will be overmatched, but after advancing in the most improbable circumstances, they shouldn't be overwhelmed, as they were by Brazil. Their terrible start that day set in motion a debacle.

"That Spain hasn't lost a game in a very long time and has played a lot of quality opponents, the challenge is very difficult," says Donovan. "However, we believe in ourselves, and we believe that if we play well we have a chance to win this game. That's our intention and we'll go out with a good game plan and try to get it done."

 



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