Spanish fans cheer before their team takes on the United States in Foxborough, Mass. (BRIAN SNYDER/REUTERS)

Against the world’s best, the U.S. national soccer team was at its worst.

The American squad and its supporters didn’t expect a victory over Spain in Saturday’s friendly, especially with Coach Bob Bradley withholding several top players ahead of the CONCACAF Gold Cup and Landon Donovan unavailable because of illness. But they didn’t anticipate a deplorable first-half performance that resulted in a three-goal deficit either.

The World Cup champions toyed with the United States to register a 4-0 victory that looked and felt much worse. It was the Americans’ worst setback since a B squad lost to Mexico, 5-0, in 2009.

“When you challenge yourself against the best teams, you have to accept that this is the way it can be sometimes,” Coach Bob Bradley said. “I’ve seen what Spain has done on certain days to many teams. The players they have, their ability as a team, it’s special.”

The Americans will need to regroup quickly. On Tuesday, they’ll face Canada in their first match of the Gold Cup, a 12-nation regional tournament that, as strange as it sounds on the surface, is more important than a game against the 2010 World Cup champion. Donovan is expected to return, Bradley said.

Over the past two years, the Americans have been competitive against the likes of Argentina, Brazil, England and the Netherlands. They stunned Spain at the 2009 Confederations Cup and won their World Cup group last year. But on this sunny afternoon, their incompetence and Spain’s genius proved to be a lethal combination before 64,121 at Gillette Stadium.

“It’s frustrating because it seems like you don’t have enough players to mark everyone they throw at you,” goalkeeper Tim Howard said. “That’s why they are so good. Some days are like this, unfortunately.”

With the Gold Cup approaching, Bradley blended regulars and reserves in the starting lineup. No one distinguished himself. Spain, which saved World Cup hero Andres Iniesta for the second half, interacted with the same precision and style it displayed in winning its first world title last summer.

“We dominated very well,” Coach Vicente del Bosque said.

The Americans were traffic cones standing in the way of a Ferrari purring in second gear.

They were under duress from the opening moments: David Silva’s apparent goal was annulled by a questionable offside ruling, Alvaro Negredo’s chip over Howard kissed the crossbar and David Villa’s bending bid nicked the right post.

Spain exploited the narrowest of seams, linked one-touch passes in tight space and, even without the creative wizardry of Iniesta and Xavi Hernandez in central midfield, moved the ball with grace and incisiveness. It was performance art.

“You always have to have a good mentality, even more so when they knock it around, the crowd gets into it and they’re creating chances,” U.S. midfielder Sacha Kljestan said. “The reaction and mentality has to be better.”

In the days leading to the match, the Americans talked about preventing Spain from hogging possession and, to some extent, imposing their own game on the visitors. But with Donovan sidelined and Clint Dempsey in reserve, the United States didn’t have anyone to keep the ball or alter the rhythm.

Spain did whatever it wanted. In the 28th minute, a series of sharp passes led to Silva collecting the ball near the end line. After cutting back on Jonathan Spector, he crossed to Santiago Cazorla for a 12-yard one-timer.

Four minutes later, Xabi Alonso dropped a well-weighted high ball over defender Tim Ream to Negredo, who beat Howard with a routine finish.

In the 41st minute, Spain touched the ball between, around and over the hapless Americans, capped by Cazorla’s 15-yard finish, again assisted by Silva. Howard pounded his gloved hands on his thighs and howled in disgust.

When the Americans began the second half with a mild threat, a pack of spectators facetiously roared approval. Fernando Torres applied the finishing touches in the 73rd minute, getting behind Steve Cherundolo and poking a shot off the far post.

The crowd’s attention span continued to wane, with chants of “Let’s go, Bruins!” breaking the monotony. The fading sun cast long shadows over the temporary grass field and the Americans began turning their attention to the Gold Cup.

“We could work for six months and maybe not get it right against them,” Howard said. “They’re that good.”

Yes, but the Americans were also that bad.

U.S. notes: Before the match, three former players with Washington connections were inducted into the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame: Germantown native Bruce Murray, a prolific scorer with the national team; Eddie Pope, who anchored D.C. United’s back line and played in three World Cups; and Earnie Stewart, a national team standout who played for United in 2003-04. They were joined by longtime U.S. and MLS star Cobi Jones and 1990 World Cup coach Bob Gansler.

4 0