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GRAHAME L. JONES / ON SOCCER

International soccer friendlies provide opportunities to test skills against world's best

The results of many international soccer matches mean nothing, but teams can use the experience as a chance to develop. The U.S. is scheduled to play Spain on June 4 in Foxborough, Mass.

March 26, 2011|Grahame L. Jones | On Soccer
  • U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey tries to break free from the defense of Argentina defender Javier Zanetti to track down the ball during the second half at New Meadowlands Stadium on Saturday.
U.S. midfielder Clint Dempsey tries to break free from the defense of Argentina… (Anthony Gruppuso / US Presswire )

It seems that the U.S. has a game scheduled against 2010 World Cup winner and reigning European champion Spain on June 4 in Foxborough, Mass.

What will it mean?

Not much, really, No more, in fact, than a majority of the 66 international matches that were played in the past week or the 50 that will be played in the coming week.

No more, indeed, than Saturday evening's U.S. match against Argentina at the New Meadowlands Stadium. The Americans were completely outthought and outplayed in the first half of that game before they fought back in the second 45 minutes to earn an ultimately deserved 1-1 tie.

The 78,936 fans in East Rutherford, N.J., appeared satisfied by the outcome.

What June 4 will provide is another opportunity for the U.S. team to test itself against the world's best. Going by the latest — but always questionable — FIFA world rankings, the match will pit No. 19 against No. 1.

Having been run ragged all too often by the slick passing of the fourth-ranked Argentines in New Jersey, the U.S. faces a similar challenge in New England.

What Barcelona's Lionel Messi did on Saturday, Barcelona's David Villa could just as easily replicate on June 4. And if not Villa, then Barcelona's Xavi or Barcelona's Andres Iniesta, or any other of Spain's multitude of stars.

Villa on Friday night showed that he is in top form. Playing in his 72nd match for the national team, he scored twice as Spain came from behind to beat the Czech Republic, 2-1, in a Euro 2012 qualifying game at the Nuevo Los Carmenes Stadium in Granada, Spain.

The goals were Villa's 45th and 46th for Spain, taking him past Raul and making him his country's all-time leading goal scorer. In another milestone, Xavi appeared in his 100th game for Spain.

"Passing Raul is not easy," said Spain Coach Vicente del Bosque. "This is a generation of players that is breaking records, which is great."

That said, Spain has had some strange results since winning the World Cup. It has been tied, 1-1, by Mexico and soundly beaten by Argentina, 4-1, and Portugal, 4-0.

But those were friendly matches, with the results counting for nothing, just as Saturday's U.S.-Argentina match meant nothing and just as the June 4 U.S.-Spain match will mean nothing.

Competitive games are all that matter, and here Spain's record is unsurpassed in recent years. Its victory Friday was its 10th in a row in competitive games since an opening World Cup loss to Switzerland in South Africa last summer.

It was also the team's 18th consecutive European Championship or World Cup qualifying victory dating back to 2007 and its 23rd qualifying game in a row without defeat dating back to 2006.

The lesson for the U.S. should be clear: Spain won't be too worried if it is beaten or tied by the U.S. in June. Its focus is on defending its title next year at Euro 2012 in Poland and Ukraine.

According to U.S. Coach Bob Bradley, the Spanish are "clearly one of the most talented teams in the world."

In other words, tying or defeating Spain should — in Bradley's eyes — be seen as a confidence-boosting accomplishment ahead of the June 5-25 Gold Cup in the U.S.

But Bradley is smart enough to realize that is all it would be. The real accomplishment came in beating Spain when it mattered — in the semifinals of the FIFA Confederations Cup in South Africa in 2009.

June's game is just a friendly, and it was Australia's German coach, Holger Osieck, who last week put friendly matches in their proper context when talking about the Socceroos' upcoming friendly against Germany on Tuesday in Moenchengladbach, Germany.

"I am not afraid to play the strong teams because it is more beneficial to play these teams than to play weaker teams and just hope to win," Osieck said. "Results always matter, and in this game the result matters as well, but you have to ride on both horses — development and success."

That's the same ride Bradley is taking with the U.S., trying to hone international-caliber players while at the same time achieving the sort of results — such as Saturday's — that will keep him employed.

Meanwhile, Europe's powers continued their march toward Euro 2012, with England, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Spain all winning their qualifying matches.

Osieck and Australia can look forward to facing a German team that trounced Kazakhstan, 4-0, in a qualifier in Kaiserslautern, Germany, on Saturday, with Thomas Mueller and Miroslav Klose each scoring twice.

Klose's second goal was his 61st for Germany, bringing him to within seven goals of the all-time German record of 68 set by Gerd "Der Bomber" Mueller back in the day when the U.S. was still a soccer backwater and the idea of playing a reigning world champion such as Spain was unthinkable.

Progress is measured in small steps, but it is being made.

grahame.jones@latimes.com

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