IRENE, South Africa -- They started scattering Sunday to the United States and Europe, never to come together as a group again.
All the optimism had vanished, four years of planning and effort foiled by a debilitating defense, faltering forwards and, in the ultimate insult to their pride, a sudden realization the most-talented soccer team in American history still wasn't good enough to consistently compete with the world's best.
"There's a pretty empty feeling right now because I think coming out of the first round, we felt that there was a real chance of doing something bigger," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said the day after a 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana eliminated the Americans in the World Cup's second round.
While the roosters crowed at Irene Farm and people streamed in for brunch, it was the last day for the American soccer team in South Africa, where players arrived May 31 filled with optimism and enthusiasm.
They're leaving dismayed.
Some headed out Sunday, most planned to depart Monday.
Part of the group was going home to the United States, another to homes in England and Europe.
Many of these players will never see a World Cup again.
What went wrong? Pretty simple to discern.
"For the four games, we were only ahead for two minutes," Bradley said (actually it was three) after reviewing the recording of Saturday's loss. "The one side is just the maturity, the experience of knowing sometimes early in the game how to manage the game."
Now the U.S. team is off until Aug. 10, when it plays Brazil in an exhibition at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Bradley already is thinking about that game, but he may not be there.
That's still the greatest challenge in the game -- to be someone who can consistently score goals. So it's an area where we do need to improve.” -- Bob Bradley
Bradley took over from Bruce Arena after the U.S. made a first-round exit in 2006, getting the job only after Juergen Klinsmann withdrew. Bradley said he and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati need time to make an assessment.
"At this moment, there's been no conversations," Bradley said. "I've always enjoyed new challenges, but I also from Day 1 have said and consider it a tremendous honor to coach the national team."
Even if Bradley returns, the defense needs a complete overhaul, a process that will start to unfold between August and next year's CONCACAF Gold Cup. New players will be tested by 2012, when qualifying starts for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.
Oguchi Onyewu showed he hadn't fully regained mobility following knee surgery last October. Jay DeMerit and captain Carlos Bocanegra were a step late at key moments, leaving the openings that led to goals.
"In some cases, there's players that still can help the team, but you're not certain what that will mean in four years time," Bradley said. "In other cases, you feel guys have gotten experience and now for them to continue in their clubs to make progress will be critical for success for the national team. And then there's the part of determining who are the next set of young players that need to be pushed into it."
Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo are 31, DeMerit 30 and Onyewu 28. Bradley finally admitted "it would be impossible for Gooch to be at 100 percent" given his seven-month layoff.
Clarence Goodson, who didn't get into a game, is 28. Jonathan Spector (24) and Jonathan Bornstein (25) have a chance to be back in four years, along with two players who were cut: Chad Marshall and Heath Pearce (both 25). There are numerous candidates to weave into the player pool, including Gale Agbossoumonde (18), Eric Lichaj (21), Omar Gonzalez (21), Ike Opara (21), Kevin Alston (22) and Tim Ream (22).
Lichaj and Agbossoumonde already have gone to Europe, a path that has helped players gain spots on the national team. Just four of the 23 players on this year's World Cup roster are with Major League Soccer clubs, including Landon Donovan, who spent part of this year with Everton.
Now 28, Donovan is the best American player ever, and if he's going to make a permanent move to Europe, this is the time. With three World Cup goals, he was the undisputed star of the U.S. team, and Everton manager David Moyes appears to want him back if a deal can be worked out with the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Midfield is the U.S. strong spot, with Clint Dempsey (27) also in his best years and Michael Bradley (22) -- the coach's son -- establishing himself as one of the best young players in the tournament. Maurice Edu and Stuart Holden (both 24) have shown promise, along with Benny Feilhaber (25) and Jose Torres (22). Alejandro Bedoya and Robbie Rogers (both 23) figure to be part of the next cycle, and Freddy Adu (21) and Sal Zizzo (23) could be, too.
"Anyone who follows games around the world would know that that's still the greatest challenge in the game -- to be someone who can consistently score goals," Bradley said. "So it's an area where we do need to improve."
While Findley has speed, he showed no scoring ability. Altidore beat defenders but then failed on good chances.
"He's covered a lot of steps so far, but that doesn't necessarily mean when you get to a World Cup, everything's going to fall right into place," Bradley said.
Fans wonder what might have been had Charlie Davies (24) not been in a car crash last October that nearly killed him on the eve of the last qualifier.
"Our hope continues to be that Charlie will get back to the level that he was before the accident, and that ultimately he'll be better than he was, because he's still young," Bradley said.
Given a favorable position in the knockout rounds after winning their group for the first time in 80 years, the U.S. cracked.
"If we were a little less naive tonight, we would have advanced," Donovan said.
Naivete wasn't the problem. Defense was.
Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press