9 June ~ The atmosphere before last Saturday's match between the United States and Spain was unusually charged for a friendly. As my friends and I walked toward the stadium, throngs of fans among the crowd of 64,000 chanted, eager to see the US take on the world's best national team. And Spain did not disappoint. Using nine players who appeared in the World Cup final 11 months ago, the visitors won 4-0. The result was deceptively close – Spain hit the woodwork twice and had a goal wrongly disallowed in the first 15 minutes alone. How bad was it? Even Fernando Torres scored.
Anyone can lose to Spain. But the US barely tried to win. Instead, coach Bob Bradley rested almost all of his best players for the apparently formidable gauntlet of Canada, Panama and Guadeloupe in the upcoming Gold Cup. So while David Villa, Sergio Busquets and Gerard Piqué started for Spain a week after playing in the Champions League final for Barcelona, the US countered with Tim Ream, Robbie Rogers and Eric Lichaj. All told, the US featured just two starters from their closing loss to Ghana at the World Cup – Tim Howard in goal and a lonely Jozy Altidore up front.
"When you challenge yourself against the best teams, you have to accept that this is the way it's going to be sometimes," said Bradley after the match. In truth, it was more like having Roger Federer over for a hit, then using a wooden racket to rally with him. What's at issue here is not so much the performance of the US on Saturday, but their ambitions. The grand narrative of the United States Soccer Federation is that the national team will one day be among the best squads in the world. Yet their management evidently still lacks confidence about handling the minnows of Concacaf. Why have a historically good team like Spain visit, and then field a makeshift group of reserves? Yes, it was a friendly — but Spain at 75 per cent would be a better test for the US's top players than Canada at full bore.
The match, televised nationally on ESPN, will not seed any grassroots support either. Some of us who attended can at least say we saw Andrés Iniesta and friends playing in person. But many of the US supporters around us in the stands were vocally unhappy when a highly-anticipated match turned into a dismal non-contest within 25 minutes. The belated appearances of second-half subs Clint Dempsey and Michael Bradley did little to help, while an apparently ill Landon Donovan was totally absent.
To be sure, the idea that Team USA will join the world's footballing elite is mostly a fiction — but a useful one, if it helps the team improve. Sadly, much like Altidore in front of goal, US officials always seem to be aiming too high or too low. In 1998, they announced the lofty objective of winning the World Cup by 2010. Last summer, they expressed ostentatious disappointment about losing to Ghana in the second round. But on Saturday, the US made Spain a lower priority than Panama. Two years ago, incidentally, the Gold Cup was an afterthought for the US, while they were off playing the likes of, well, Spain in the Confederations Cup. Someday, the United States Soccer Federation and their coaches will balance ambition and realism in a productive way. It hasn't happened yet. Peter Dizikes