In defeat, players stand behind Bradley
RUSTENBURG, South Africa -- There were no tears, of course. He's far too proud a man for that.
The signs of his emotions lay in other, less-obvious tells. His eyes, otherwise so bright, looked dim; under the bright lights, his face appeared a little more gaunt than usual. His hair somehow seemed grayer, and the sighs and pauses before answers were more pronounced.
In what might have been U.S. coach Bob Bradley's last postgame press conference in that role, the heart and effort he had put into his four years at the helm were evident from the disappointment dripping from his otherwise stoic face.
Was this a farewell address or merely a State of the Union?
Inevitably, after a World Cup campaign that was cut shorter than it could have been -- with expectations met but potential not quite fully exploited -- the conversation turns to the coach and his future.
"I don't think it's the time to talk about my situation," said Bradley, whose contract expires at the end of this year, when asked if he was interested in renewing it.
Staying might not make sense for Bradley. Only one other American coach, Bruce Arena, has taken his team to two World Cups. And many believe that his second four-year term was one too many, as his time ended on a sour note with an early elimination in Germany in 2006.
"Eight years is a long time as a national team coach," said defender Carlos Bocanegra, who became the team's captain under Bradley. "It's very rare anywhere around the world for that to happen."
What's more, most of the players Bradley has built his team around are starting to edge past their primes. Bocanegra is 31, as are goalkeeper Tim Howard and central defender Jay DeMerit. Forwards Clint Dempsey and Landon Donovan are 27 and 28 respectively and, like defender Oguchi Onyewu (28), are unlikely to get better.
A draw as favorable as the one the U.S. received in this World Cup is unlikely to befall it again, and its quadrant of the bracket in the knockout rounds never so appetizing.
That is to say, Bradley's chances of doing better aren't promising.
His squad, however, seems unanimous in its praise of Bradley at a time when it may no longer stand to benefit from talking him up.
"I think the players support him," DeMerit said. "I think the guys that have had Bob as the main manager for the past four years have grown to a level of respect."
Defender Jonathan Spector agreed. "I think the statistics don't lie," he said. Bradley has the second-most wins of any U.S. coach (38) and the second-highest winning percentage of any coach in charge for at least three games (.636) -- trailing only Arena in both categories.
Players appreciated Bradley's honesty, and his willingness to try new players. "What Bob did best is that he took chances on a lot of guys," DeMerit said. "There's 92 players that he gave chances to of being part of this group for this World Cup and me being one of them."
And the players all see progress. "I think he pushed us in the right direction," Bocanegra said. "I think he did a good job of getting the most out of each player. We were organized and mentally we were strong. There were a lot of things that he's done well."
Howard added, "In the last four years we've gotten better. I think that shows. I think we all need to stick around."
But will the U.S. Soccer Federation see it the same way? The black stain on Bradley's record is his team's tendency to give up early goals, a problem not just in three of its four games at this World Cup but throughout his tenure. No other team at the World Cup had given up a goal in the first 15 minutes in three games in one tournament since China in 2002.
The federation may renew its search for a big-name foreign coach. Bradley, for all we know, may have been a stop-gap solution after serving as the interim coach for five months before being given the job outright. His players seem to think that he's earned a crack at another term, should he want it.
But Bradley might be drawn back to club management, the day-to-day interaction with a group of players -- in Europe perhaps, a goal that he's made no bones about aspiring to.
"Bob is someone that will just continue to do what Bob does," DeMerit said. "And whether people like it or whether people don't, it's his decision as for where his future lies."
Let the conjectures begin.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.