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Red-hot Spain meets underdog Americans in unlikely semis

BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa - For Spain, it always was a given that the team would reach the semifinals of the Confederations Cup. For the United States, it turned out to be an unexpected gift.

The two will meet today for a place in the final of the biggest international tournament of the year. Top-ranked Spain, on a roll and playing with consummate confidence, will be the overwhelming favorite against an American team that barely scraped through the group phase of the tournament.

Yet, Spain midfielder Pablo Hernandez said the United States could still spring another surprise.

'It would be a lack of respect to start thinking about the final now,' Hernandez said. 'You have to respect United States.'

The Americans already escaped elimination after losing to Brazil and world champion Italy. A pair of wild matches to finish Group B on Sunday saw the United States move from last to second in the toughest group of the eight-team tournament. The result hung in the balance up to the final seconds of the team's 3-0 win over Egypt and Italy's 3-0 loss to Brazil.

Now, the Americans want to ride their luck right into the final - but Spain rarely gives luck a chance.

The European champions are on a unique roll, having already set a record 15-match winning streak. They can add a record 36-match unbeaten streak if they defeat the United States, pushing beyond the old mark held by Brazil from 1993-96.

'It's time for them to lose one,' said United States midfielder Sacha Klejstan, who got a red card against Brazil in his team's second match. 'So hopefully, we're the team to put an end to their winning streak.'

So far, Spain beat New Zealand 5-0, Iraq 1-0 and South Africa 2-0 for a perfect record in Group A and an impressive goal tally.

The United States had some excuses in losses to Italy and Brazil. In both games it had a man sent off, and paid dearly. A full squad made a huge improvement against Egypt to clinch the unlikely semifinal spot. Brazil plays South Africa in the other semifinal match on Thursday.

Spain has no intention of letting up, seeking a second major trophy after winning last year's European Championship.

Even though Andres Iniesta is out with an injury, Spain's midfield still boasts Xavi Hernandez, Xabi Alonso and Cesc Fabregas to set up strikers Fernando Torres and David Villa.

'Their midfield is probably the best in the world right now,' Klejstan said.

If not through skill, Klejstan is convinced sheer force can do the trick for the Americans.

SideBar: If you watch

· Who: United States vs. Spain

· Where: Bloemfontein, South Africa

· When: 2:25 p.m. today

· TV: ESPN2