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Young La Liga stars help Spain and Mexico lift trophies; the USA has work to do

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Tim Howard (seen here before the Spain friendly): when the midfield is overrun and a makeshift back line continually exposed, it's gonna be a long night.  So it proved.
Tim Howard (seen here before the Spain friendly): when the midfield is overrun and a makeshift back line continually exposed, it's gonna be a long night. So it proved.

While our focus on here is, for obvious reasons, Villarreal CF and its players, the team doesn't exist in a vacuum, and I know many of you watched the Gold Cup final last night. I don't know how many of you watched the final of the Under-21 European Championships, though as you may know Spain U-21 ("La Rojita") in the European Championships, but as you probably know the team defeated Switzerland 2-0 yesterday behind goals by Ander Herrera and Thiago Alcantara.

This result means Spain are now the reigning World Champions, European Champions, under-21 European Champions. It's an amazing haul of trophies, pehaps even more amazing when you consider that prior to the 2008 European tourney Spain had always been the team with promise, often among the favorites, but always underperformed when the pressure was on. Now, Spanish teams are full of confidence, and national angst has turned to national pride.

Two takeaway messages from the tournament were first, the Spanish national side is going to be pretty good for the foreseeable future, and second, there are going to be some fun youngsters to watch in La Liga next year.

The U-21 players that especially impressed me were the Athletic Bilbao contingent: Iker Muinain, Ander Herrera, and Javi Martinez. If the Basques can keep Fernando Llorente, they will have a good squad, though their rugby-style defense is always a concern.

Two other impressive players were from Barca (of course), Thiago Alcantara and Jeffren. Aaron Duckling from Barca Blaugranes may have overpitched it a bit by claiming Thiago is better than Cesc Fabregas, but if he is wrong now, there's no reason why he won't be right in a year or two. And Jeffren, who I was watching particularly because he's been linked with Villarreal, is maddeningly inconsistent, but in the semifinal set up the tying goal and scored one later.

And that's not even mentioning the tournament's leading scorer and MVP, Adrián Lopez, who will be playing for Atlético Madrid net year after Depor's relegation. Villarreal had only one player on the squad, B-team keeper Diego Mariño, but players like Mario Gaspar may well feature as they move up the age ranks.

Let's talk about Mexico-USA now. Gio Dos Santos had a great match, and fans of Racing Santander can take heart--Mister Ali may have left you high and dry, but at least he brought Gio to the side. Andrés Guardado, still with Depor as of now, had a good tournament as well. Hector Moreno, from Espanyol, also. Mexico earns a trip to the next Confederations Cup with their victory, and the performance of this "new generation" of players--Barrera and Chicharito in addition to the above--gives hope to Mexican fans for future international successes.

As for the USA, not so much. Yes, there were injuries (Altidore in the quarterfinal, Cherundolo in the final) but the team needs to move away from reliance on the older players (Cherundolo, Dempsey, Donovan). While some of the younger players did well against lesser opposition, as in the Spain "friendly", last night was a different story.

The best for the US was a Bradley--Michael Bradley. He was the best player the USA had last night, and throughout the entire tournament. He worked hard box-to-box, saw the game well, and was generally in the middle of anything good the US had to offer. He scored one goal, could have had another. I'm going to say again, Villarreal or some other La Liga team should take a look at him.

The worst--well, defensive frailty, to put it mildly, exacerbated by Bob Bradley's tactics. When the lineups were announced I expected the US to try to clog midfield and protect their backline by cutting off the service to Gio and Chicharito. Honduras played Mexico tough for 90 minutes, and that's what I expected the US to try to do.

instead, from the opening whistle the match was very open. Mexico had already had a couple of good chances when the US took the lead against the run of play (the Mexico defense failing to defend a corner adequately, and Bradley took advantage). The US's second goal was from a good counterattack, but as long as the game continued in the same vein, you knew the lead wouldn't last.

US defenders were continually out of position, partly because they had pushed up too far and partly because the US midfielders, for the most part, found it difficult to keep possession and/or win the ball back once they'd lost it, but also because they were continually beaten for pace by the Mexicans. The US were far too casual in possession; Mexico had a makeshift back four as well (making two subs during the match) but the American squad failed to exploit that weakness.

Watching the American struggles last night, I was uncomfortably reminded of Villarreal's back line struggles after Gonzalo and Angel went down (Jiwonsi, be nice, you know what game I'm thinking of!)--confusion in the back, loss of shape, lack of speed. Not a good recipe for strength at the back.

The focus over the next couple of years has got to be finding and developing more players like Michael Bradley, because the core of the team (Cherundolo, Donovan, Dempsey) are not going to have that many more years left in them. Players like Altidore and Freddy Adu are still young and might come good, and players like Bedoya and Agudelo had some good moments over the course of the tournament, not so much last night.

Spain's example shows that the road to future success begins at the youth level. The USA's under-17 team is currently taking part in the U-17 World Cup and has made the round of 16. Those players are a ways off, of course, but regardless of who is coaching the US National Team, the youth system is what has to work for the USMNT to be competitive down the road. Let's hope that's the case.