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As the U.S. soccer team takes stock of its fateful round-of-16 departure and regroups for the future, it rues a golden opportunity squandered in South Africa

The U.S. will never have a more favorable path to World Cup glory. Not in this lifetime, anyway. That was the cold reality setting in on a quiet bus as it rolled past the winter wildfires on a desolate two-lane highway in rural South Africa last Saturday. Not even Duke in this year's NCAA basketball tournament had a friendlier bracket to reach the Final Four of its sport's signature event. All the U.S. had to do was beat Ghana and Uruguay—two fellow soccer mid-majors—and the Yanks would have reached the semifinals, won global hosannas and turned their own fickle nation into full-fledged f√∫tbol lunatics.

Americans had embraced their World Cup team in unprecedented numbers. The television audience that tuned in to ABC and Univision for the round-of-16 showdown with Ghana last Saturday was 19.4 million, higher than the audience for all but two games in the 2009 World Series and all but Game 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals. The American masses had fallen for an outfit that reflected the nation's bedrock values, a team that refused to give up, fought back from deficits to England and Slovenia, scored a stoppage-time goal to beat Algeria and won its group—ahead of England, mind you—for the first time in the modern era. Even Jay Leno was telling good soccer jokes. (On the Algeria game: "You know how the goal was possible? Apparently the corrupt referee was not paying attention.")

Nearly every World Cup has a surprise semifinalist, a soccer Cinderella, and the U.S. was an obvious candidate. Everything was coming together for coach Bob Bradley and his men, who had turned their lack of a superstar into a rallying cry for a team that was the anti-France, one that put ego aside for a mission statement that came straight from the U.S. mint: E pluribus unum. All of which made the 2--1 extra-time loss to Ghana at Rustenburg's Royal Bafokeng Stadium even more excruciating. For the third time in four games, the U.S. gave up an early goal, then came back to tie the score (on Landon Donovan's 62nd-minute penalty kick). For the third time in four games, America's Cardiac Kickers took control when it mattered most and were seemingly poised to score another late game-winner. And then, in the amount of time it takes for a soufflé to fall, Ghanaian forward Asamoah Gyan ran onto a thumping longball, beat defenders Carlos Bocanegra and Jay DeMerit and shot a thunderbolt past goalkeeper Tim Howard.

It was a remarkable individual effort, a goal that sent much of Africa into delirium for the continent's only remaining team. When the final whistle blew and the U.S. players fell to the ground, the Black Stars had eliminated the Americans for the second Cup in a row. "The finality of it is brutal," said Donovan afterward. "You realize how much you've put into it, not only for the last four years but for your whole life. There's no guarantee there's another opportunity at that."

If soccer itself is a game of agonizing near misses and the rare ecstatic celebration, then this World Cup was the sport writ large for American fans new and old. On one hand, the Yanks met their pretournament expectations, the round of 16, by earning five points in group play for the first time. On the other, they missed a chance for the ages. "It's pretty clear that we're not in the upper elite of the world's game, the top five," noted U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. "What's probably most disappointing is that we weren't playing one of those elite teams. Ghana is a very good team, but you look at the way the draw worked out, and frankly you start dreaming."

As is the case with 31 of the 32 teams in this tournament, that dream will have to be deferred for at least four more years. So what happens now? Unlike after previous World Cups, in which the national team went dormant for several months, the U.S. will meet Brazil in a high-profile friendly on Aug. 10 at the new Meadowlands stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. (Gulati says another exhibition with an unspecified opponent will take place in October.) In the process, U.S. Soccer will have several things on its mind as it tries to use the World Cup as a springboard to continued mainstream interest.

• Whither the Bradleys?

The U.S.'s breakout player was 22-year-old Michael Bradley, who showed he could compete as a box-to-box midfielder against some of the sport's highest-paid players, including England's Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard. Is there a chance Bradley might join them in the Premier League? The rough-and-tumble pace of the Premiership would be a good fit for Bradley, who has moved up the ladder from MLS's MetroStars to the Netherlands' Heerenveen to Germany's Borussia Mönchengladbach. "He's a real engine to our team," says U.S. assistant coach Jesse Marsch. "On both sides of the ball he gives us a lot, and with that he has a clear understanding of what Bob wants things to look like."

The question now is whether Michael's father, Bob, will continue as U.S. coach. By guiding the Americans to the second round, Bradley, 52, may have done enough to earn another four-year term. While his teams have never been swashbuckling entertainers, his pragmatic approach has earned respect in global soccer quarters. When Switzerland upset Cup favorite Spain earlier in the tournament, coach Ottmar Hitzfeld said he'd closely observed the strategies Bradley had used in the U.S.'s victory over Spain in 2009. Some of Bradley's questionable lineup decisions in South Africa—starting Ricardo Clark over Maurice Edu and Robbie Findley over Benny Feilhaber—will no doubt come up in U.S. Soccer's job appraisal.

Both Bradley and his boss, Gulati, were noncommittal last week about Bradley's future. Bradley could leave of his own accord—either for an MLS team or a club in Europe—or Gulati might make a play for a foreign coach with U.S. knowledge, such as J√ºrgen Klinsmann.

• Why does the U.S. fall behind so quickly?

The Americans yielded the two earliest goals of the World Cup through Monday—to England's Gerrard (in the fourth minute) and to Ghana's Kevin Prince Boateng (in the fifth)—in addition to going down early against Slovenia. It wasn't a new trend either, considering the U.S. defense allowed the first goal in six of its final 10 World Cup qualifiers. The reason may be anything from a lack of focus to being too emotionally pumped up before the kickoff. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we do that," said Howard, who didn't have any major gaffes but could have done better on a couple of goals the U.S. allowed. "We need to make teams work a lot harder for goals. You look at the best teams, and when they get scored on, it doesn't come very easily." Yet Howard, 31, was quick to take responsibility for any of his own shortcomings after the Ghana game: "In big games a keeper has to make enough saves, and I didn't make enough saves."

• Where does Donovan go from here?

Already the U.S.'s alltime leader in goals (45) and assists (42), the 28-year-old scored three times in World Cup 2010, bringing his career total to five (the most ever scored by a CONCACAF player). All three were crucial: his roof job to start the comeback in a 2--2 tie against Slovenia, his injury-time game-winner to beat Algeria and stave off elimination, and his penalty-kick equalizer against Ghana. Using Donovan's high standards, though, he was dominant in only one of four games (against Slovenia, particularly in the second half) and was overshadowed by fellow midfielder Clint Dempsey in the loss to Ghana. Will Donovan come back for a fourth World Cup in 2014? Barring injury, it seems likely, though the U.S. will have to hope that by then someone younger has filled his role as the team's best player.

Perhaps the bigger question is whether Donovan will move this summer from the Galaxy to a European team willing to pay a hefty transfer fee (from $8 million to $12 million). His successful 10-week loan to England's Everton earlier this year won Donovan European respect, and if he's going to make a move, it will need to be soon.

• How will the U.S. improve?

Any assessment of the U.S.'s talent has to acknowledge that, while Bradley's team was better than the sum of its parts, those parts need to get better. More Americans than ever play overseas, but some of them need to take the next step to top European clubs. One position in particular that needs addressing is forward: No U.S. striker has scored at a World Cup since 2002. While Jozy Altidore, 20, and the injured Charlie Davies, 24, have shown promise, they need to make significant strides in the next four-year cycle, and others need to emerge. "We feel like in all positions we have talent," says Bob Bradley, "but when we get to the World Cup level ... we still know we need to get better, and forward would certainly be one of those areas."

The U.S. would benefit from a little more skill and a little less emotion when the whistle blows for Brazil 2014. Teams that rely on emotion have a hard time maintaining it for an entire tournament, no matter how righteous it may be. Skill endures. In the end, this U.S. team did its fans proud in South Africa but has left them dreaming of what might have been.




GOODBYE TO ALL THAT Gyan's blast past Howard sent the U.S. packing, though Clark (left, with Bradley) got an earlier exit after his gaffe.



[See caption above]



HARD KNOCKS Dempsey (8), who took some tough hits from Ghana, was one of the few Americans whose talent matched his grit.