- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 24, 2009

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa | Talk about tests - after reaching the Confederations Cup semifinals in unlikely fashion, the reward for the U.S. soccer team is a matchup Wednesday with top-ranked Spain.

“The team is on a high for sure,” U.S. coach Bob Bradley said Tuesday. “From a football standpoint, it’s a great challenge, but we couldn’t be more excited for this chance.”

The United States is 0-3 against Spain, losing 3-1 in the first round of the 1950 World Cup, 2-0 in a 1992 exhibition at Valladolid and 1-0 in an exhibition at Santander on June 4 last year, when Xavi Hernandez beat backup goalkeeper Brad Guzan with a low shot in the 79th minute.

“They have less pressure. They have nothing to lose. For them, it’s a positive that we assume the title of favorite, the responsibility and the pressure,” Spanish midfielder Xavi Hernandez said. “We assume the mantle of favorites, but it won’t be an easy match. Not at all.”

Spain, the European champion, has set an international record with 15 straight victories and will be trying to stretch its unbeaten streak to a record 36, breaking the mark set by Brazil from December 1993 to January 1996. Brazil’s streak includes a loss on penalty kicks to Uruguay in the 1995 Copa America final, which is considered a tie in FIFA’s records.

“A big part of playing them is not getting frustrated because you don’t have the ball,” Landon Donovan said. “The other side of that is trying to put them under pressure. That’s our goal, and if we can do that we have a chance.”

After losing 3-1 to world champion Italy and 3-0 to South American champion Brazil, the 14th-ranked United States reached the semis with a 3-0 victory over African champion Egypt as Brazil beat the Azzurri 3-0. The winner of Wednesday’s game advances to the final against Brazil or host South Africa on Sunday, while the loser goes to the third-place match the same day.

FIFA said there were about 6,000 tickets still on sale for the match at the 38,000-seat Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein.

“There will be a certain number of tickets given on a complimentary basis,” FIFA spokesman Nicolas Maingot said. “Again, it’s a gesture from FIFA… for people to have a chance to enjoy this game.”

The U.S. is 1-7-1 against top-ranked teams, beating Brazil in the 1998 CONCACAF Gold Cup, losing to Brazil seven times and tying Argentina on June 8 last year during a downpour at Giants Stadium.

“We have to be very careful,” Spain coach Vicente del Bosque said. “They have a very talented midfield that pushes upfield easily. They play very direct, attacking football.”

Spain’s forwards, Fernando Torres and David Villa, are complemented by Hernandez and talented defenders like Carles Puyol and Joan Capdevila. Del Bosque, who replaced Luis Aragones as coach following the European title, has won 13 consecutive games.

“Different types of players are essential for a great national team. Torres is such a great forward. Xabi Alonso is in the middle of everything they do. Puyol, on top of everything else, plays with so much heart, so much fight,” Bradley said. “Aragones and now Del Bosque have taken all that talent and turned it into something special. They’re on an incredible run now, and we’ve got to find a way to break it.”

U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra, sidelined since injury a hamstring in the June 6 World Cup qualifier against Honduras, had nearly recovered and would boost the American defense against Spain, coming off its first major title in 44 years. Regular goalkeeper Tim Howard will return after Guzan faced the Egyptians.

“Carlos is back into full training,” Bradley said. “We still have to test him a little bit, but he certainly becomes an option in this game.”

One of the biggest challenges for the Americans will be maintaining their composure while Spain taps the ball back and forth in midfield.

“I’m not a big stat guy in soccer, but in every game Spain plays they always dominate possession,” Bradley said.



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