As U.S. U-20 coach Thomas Rongen flew back over the Atlantic last night he could reflect on his squad's growing character as they achieved third place in the Northern Ireland Milk Cup.
After a lackluster start against the hosts (a 3-1 loss to Northern Ireland), the U.S U-20s responded with two clean sheets and six goals in resounding victories over Wales and Belgium (4-0 and 2-0 respectively).
After notable victories in England and over Mexico, U.S soccer fans could reasonably assume the U-20s had a good shot at winning the Milk Cup, but as has historically been the case a lack of street smarts undermined their chances in the final reckoning.
On July 28 against eventual winners Northern Ireland, Rongen's side was caught out by the intensity of the host's challenge.
The U.S did well to stay competitive throughout the first half, but could not maintain its effort, falling behind to an own goal on the hour mark, and a low drive with six minutes left in the game.
Arguably the result might have been different had the touring party been given more time to acclimatize, but the nature of international football is this type of hindrance has to be overcome. Rongen did not hold back in his assessment of the opening game, he said:
"We came here to win the tournament but the two best teams played in the final -- Chile and Northern Ireland.
"It was not the performance we were looking for, against an equally-matched team, they were better on the day, and deserved it more than we did.
"We had opportunities but they capitalized, we did not. The own goal we gave up against Northern Ireland killed us off a little bit."
Rongen's disappointment at his team blowing its title chances in the opening fixture was apparent, but the game stats (the U.S out shot Northern Ireland 9-8) highlight the U-20s were competitive despite their below-par performance.
FC Dallas midfielder Brek Shea also felt the team underperformed against the host, adding: "We did not start the game well, we were too slow they took us by surprise.
"We didn't start playing well until it was too late in the second half. Coach Rongen said it happens but that we could only show how well we can play by how we bounce back."
The squad responded well against Wales winning 4-0. Brek Shea came to the fore delivering two well executed goals before Peri Marosevic and Danny Cruz got on the score sheet from close range.
The U-20s display was well rounded, with the side maintaining possession and capitalizing on the chances they created. Shea admitted he was satisfied with the patience the team showed in breaking down a stubborn Welsh outfit:
"I missed a few in the Irish game and against Wales early on, but I got a shot off from distance for the first and for the second one, we built a nice move through the midfield and the forwards. We did not allow ourselves to get frustrated."
Against Belgium the U-20s dealt with the added pressure of the third-place playoff, and Rongen's belief that the game should be treated like a third-round tie for World Cup qualification, or final game in a World Cup group stage, the incentive paid dividends as the U.S won 2-0.
Shea explained the team finally found its stride: "Against Belgium we came out the same way as we did against Wales. We had some great possession in the first half but could not make anything from it.
"We knew if we kept playing something would happen and it did. Once we got the first we controlled the game and added the second."
Rongen side seem to perform better as underdogs but felt the U-20s reacted well the pressure he placed on them, he said:
"When you look at it overall we are pleased. In World Cup qualifying you have to come through three games, and this provided a similar environment in terms of the continuity required.
"After the Northern Ireland loss we set some different goals. We took one step at a time and performed well under pressure, six out of nine points will get you there."
Casey Townsend and Michael Green "pleasantly surprised" Rongen in their first national team outings, and will have their chances of making the World Cup qualification squad boosted by the head coaches admission that Jozy Altidore and Freddy Adu are unlikely to make the trip, he explained:
"We have to look at what is best for them. They have a lot on their plates at the moment with the Olympics and Senior team.
"We also have to consider they have joined new clubs, I will speak to Bob Bradley but the decision has to make sense for everyone."
Rongen appeared happy with the overall progression of his side but admits they will need to be more street smarts to reach the next level, he added:
"Tactically and technically this is a good side that had a good tournament. But the American player needs to be more wily on the international scene.
"There are certain situations that they are not aware of, and factors like time management and killing games off need to be understood. This side is likely to learn these fundamentals."
Andrew Rogers is a freelance contributor to ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.