Mixed emotions will once again plague the occasionally brilliant US U-20s as they head home after the quarter-final stage, beaten 2-1 in extra time by Austria on Saturday.
"I just don't know what went wrong," a perplexed Freddy Adu told FIFA.com after losing out to an Erwin Hoffer goal in added time in Toronto. "Soccer is a game of bounces, a game of inches and some days you don't get those bounces and the ball doesn't drop where it needs to. We know we left everything out on the pitch, but it wasn't enough"
While Adu, who scored three goals, set up many and had a brilliant tournament overall was trying to look for a reason, Michael Bradley was just plain down in the mouth. "We gave it everything out there," he sighed, "but they took their chances and we didn't."
Already a member of the US senior team, and son of senior boss Bob Bradley, young Michael of Dutch club Heerenveen proved himself a rising star on the American soccer scene at these finals. He scored the winner in the Round of Sixteen contest with Uruguay, and his ball winning combined with the dogged determination of partner-in-crime Danny Szelela to pave the way for a bright future for the USA.
Star in the making
Szetela, a rugged and impressive customer, who scored three goals and looked a shining light in the US side with his stomach for the fight and steely determination, was not about to make excuses after being eliminated. "Sure, the rain made the pitch slick...but it was slick for both teams," said the straight-talking Columbus Crew man who will surely be sparking the attention of European clubs with his performances in Canada. "Basically, we had a few chances and we didn't take them...the Austrians maybe had fewer chances, but the difference is, they took theirs."
Head coach Thomas Rongen put the whole tournament in context when talking to FIFA.com the day before the Austrian loss. "It's important as a young football nation like ours to play some attractive, attacking football," the Dutch-born veteran coach said. "At the end of the day, the way you play may be more important than all the results you're getting at youth level. We're making tremendous strides and people are talking about some good, pretty football coming out of the States, and you don't hear that too often."
Whereas US teams of the past have sometimes purveyed a tactically naïve style, this free-thinking, expressive side arrived in Canada with the goal of reaching the semi-finals - one step better than Rongen's last time in charge at UAE 2003 when the Americans lost a slim game in the quarters to a Javier Mascherano-inspired Argentina.
In the end, they failed to reach that goal. But if the purpose of a national U-20 program is to feed future senior team stars, then the US have met big goals here in Canada.
Bradley was a giant, and Szetela as well in the holding role. Adu had some sparkling performances, most notably in the 2-1 win over Brazil. Josmer Altidore stood up as a striker with boundless potential and the ability to hold the ball up and bag goals with his physical power and wily brain.
On the wings, the University boys Tony Beltran and Sal Zizzo of UCLA shone ably in a team of full professionals, with their deft play and sublime crossing. Both look to have big careers ahead of them when they finish their studies in sunny California.
At the end of the day, the US suffered from a lack of big-game experience - which is understandable for what Rongen call's a "sill-developing football nation." Roaring through the group stages, the tension and tightness of the knockout games proved a little much. But Rongen - who had his team playing the most stylish and technically pleasant football of arguably any US team at any age level in history - sees the big picture over all else.
"Sure you want to win, but when the world starts noticing that some good, attacking football is coming out of the States, well that's a step in the right direction," he said. "We fell short of our goal here in Canada, and we are bitterly disappointed about that. But there are more positives to take home than negatives."