Spain delivers U.S. team reality check

FOXBOROUGH, Mass. -- Remember that feeling when you were high-fiving a complete stranger after Landon Donovan's goal against Algeria?

Or the time during last year's World Cup when you pretended to know where Slovenia was on a map when it played the United States?

Or where you were for the gut-wrenching loss to Ghana in the Round of 16?

While the memories from last year's Cup endure nearly a year later, Saturday's performance by the U.S. men's national team against Spain -- the world's top-ranked squad -- was forgettable. It couldn't have been a starker reminder of the perceived separation that exists in soccer between the New World and the Old.

"The Red Fury" embodied their nickname, striking for three first-half goals en route to a 4-0 win in an international friendly at Gillette Stadium.

The U.S. lineup, however, bore little resemblance to the team in South Africa last June. Donovan didn't play because of illness and Clint Dempsey started the match on the bench. Oguchi Onyewu was the only veteran playing on the U.S. backline, joined by youngsters Eric Lichaj, Jonathan Spector and Tim Ream. Goalkeeper Tim Howard and forward Jozy Altidore were the only American starters on the pitch who also started last year's Round of 16 match against Ghana.

Spain countered with many of its top-tier players, including David Villa, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos. Spain's exceptional depth at forward had Fernando Torres coming in off the bench in the second half.

More than that, the Americans' latest performance was even further away from what was exhibited in a 2-0 victory over Spain in the 2009 Confederations Cup. That match was among the legitimate feathers in U.S. soccer's collective cap, having ended Spain's 35-match unbeaten streak at the time. It also earned the Americans their first appearance in a final in a major FIFA tournament.

A casual friendly doesn't quite stack up to an international tournament, but it was clear the teams were simply on an uneven playing field this time around.

That still begs the question of how far American soccer has come in its quest to be considered among the world's elite.

"I'd like to think [we're improving]," Howard said. "The first four years [before the World Cup], the growth and the steps are going to be large. The four years following that, if it's the same team, the same nucleus and the same coaching staff, your progression will be smaller because you've already got the foundation."

Saturday's drubbing was the national team's last tune-up before its CONCACAF Gold Cup opener against Canada in Detroit on Tuesday.

With an opportunity to win its third Gold Cup in its last four appearances, the U.S. team has the chance at a marquee accomplishment. It will also serve as another barometer for how far coach Bob Bradley has pushed the program.

"I don't know about a failure," Altidore replied when asked if anything short of a Gold Cup championship would be a disappointment. "We'll be playing against strong teams, but it's not going to be easy."

Howard was thankful to have a quick chance to put the vision of Spain's torrid 20-shot barrage behind him.

"We have a game on Tuesday, so we don't have much time to be upset. We'll motivate ourselves and we'll get the right result."

Michael Bradley was among the American stars who started the match on the bench. The World Cup hero saw just about one match's worth of time (101 minutes) since his transfer to English Premier League side Aston Villa. He entered in the 46th minute, replacing Jermaine Jones.

Bradley believed the younger American players would benefit from the experience of playing teams of Spain's caliber.

"That's important early in a cycle to get some new players the chance to get their foot in door, to get comfortable," he said.

With the match all but decided by halftime, perhaps the most rousing moment of the second half came in the 76th minute. Iker Casillas, the keeper who led Spain's World Cup run last year, entered the match, relieving starter Pepe Reina. The many red-and-yellow clad Spanish die-hards among the 64,121 in attendance paid homage to their hero, as though they were casting roses into the ring at the feet of a victorious matador.

Casillas returned a casual wave.

A few moments later, a chant of "Let's go Bruins" echoed through the quickly dissolving crowd.

There were other pressing matters to attend to on a beautiful late-spring afternoon.

Scott Barboza is a staff writer for ESPNBoston.com.