So once again, the United States faces a big test on a world soccer stage when it plays in the Confederations Cup this week in South Africa.

And thanks to the usual questionable draw for a FIFA-sponsored event, the U.S. team opens the first round with Italy today (ESPN, 2:25), followed by Brazil on Thursday (ESPN2, 9:55 a.m.) and Egypt on Sunday (ESPN2, 2:25 p.m.).

"The FIFA Confederations Cup is a great opportunity to play against top-level competition and gain further experience competing in tough games," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said in a statement from the U.S. Soccer Federation, probably with his teeth firmly clenched.

"I don't think the World Cup will come and we'll get a harder group," said goalie Tim Howard, who turned in another outstanding season with Everton in Eng-land's Premier League. "If it is, there's a conspiracy."

Meanwhile, reigning European champion and world No. 1 Spain drew a first-round group of South Africa, Iraq and New Zealand. If the Spaniards played their games blindfolded, including the goalkeeper, they still would win each game in a walk. Playing with their eyes wide-open yesterday, they toyed with New Zealand, 5-0, all the goals scored in the game's first 30 minutes.

But this is about the United States and maybe the most challenging 1-year schedule it has ever faced. Beginning with the 10-game CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament (five completed, five in the fall), followed by at least three games in South Africa, and then most likely six more in CONCACAF's Gold Cup, the Americans get the chance to prove they are still masters of their North American domain, and get another crack at big guys Italy and Brazil (don't expect them to get to Spain).

Bradley is being realistic. He has his "A" team here, and is using this tournament to prep his 22-man team for next summer's World Cup, also in South Africa.

"Any time you have a chance to have a dry run, see what it's all about, it gives you the kind of information that you can use as you make all your preparations for the following year," he said.

The Americans' first two games will be played in Pretoria, and their game with Egypt in Rustenburg. The other cities hosting games are Bloemfontein and Johannesburg, scene of the final on June 28.

In the Confederation

* After South Africa and Iraq opened the tournament at 0-0, Spain had its workout with New Zealand. Fernando Torres, one of five Liverpool players on Spain's roster, had three goals in the game's first 17 minutes.

* Italy has 10 members from its 2006 World Cup champs playing, and has added 22-year-old Giuseppe Rossi, or Joey Rossi as he was known in his hometown of Teaneck, N.J., and by his classmates at Clifton High School . . . Brazil features what could be a deadly strike force of Kaka, Alexandre Pato and Robinho. Brazil's 22 players play in seven countries . . . Eighteen of Egypt's 22 players play in that country, but the Pharaohs are without their two best-known players, Zaki (Wigan) and Mido (Middlesbrough) from the Premier League.

Gold Cup

It's expected that Bob Bradley will have a much younger roster for this tournament, which runs July 3-26 in 13 stadiums around the United States. With his top players now in South Africa and all either having just completed European seasons or being involved in midseason MLS play, they should all get a rest before World Cup qualifying, and their regular jobs, resumes in August.

The U.S. team is a good bet to play at Lincoln Finacial Field in a quarterfinal game July 18, since the first- and second-place finishers from its first-round group are scheduled to be here. The other teams in the Americans' group are Grenada, Haiti and Honduras, which lost a 2-1 World Cup qualifier to the U.S. team June 6.

Around the World Cup

Already set to join host South Africa for next year's tournament are Holland, Australia, Japan and South Korea. Among the traditional powers who seem to be on the ropes are Mexico, Cameroon, the Czech Republic and Portugal, with its very rich superstar, Cristiano Ronaldo. And Andorra, Faroe Islands, Liechtenstein and San Marino, among other minnows, as the British press likes to call them, are again out of the World . . . Cup. *