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'Empty feeling' for U.S.; what's next?

United States goalkeeper Tim Howard clenches his fist.

United States goalkeeper Tim Howard clenches his fist. (June 26, 2010) Photo Credit: AP

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 that 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. Bradley already is thinking about that game, but he may not be there.

Bradley took over from Bruce Arena after the United States 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.

Midfield is the U.S. strong spot, but forward is barren. All five U.S. goals came from the midfield. "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."

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