The table may never again be arranged with such promise, a real lollipop of a draw and then a bracket blown wide open, a dangling carrot in easy grasp. Back home, the U.S. public at large went "all in" for World Cup soccer, hooked by a side that played with passion and pride, once backed into a corner, anyway.
Alas, the bottom line is that the United States was a side ill equipped to exploit the gap, thin of depth and still not sufficiently wise to cope with this level.
The team did make a suddenly interested country proud, rediscovering a never-quit spirit and a battling resolve, a determination that had seemed to vanish four years ago as the United States went out rather meekly, a first round to forget.
That needs to be the take away from South Africa 2010. Because the U.S. program had surely lost the plot a bit, drawn into a misguided overestimation of its true ability. A talent pool that's been steadily on the rise had everyone bamboozled, fooled into thinking we were farther along. This creeping infiltration suggested that skill and silky soccer might be the way forward. Now, we know better; everyone around U.S. program should understand that anything less than full laser-lock focus, anything less than determination suggesting that your very life depends on it simply isn't good enough. So in that regard, lesson learned. And memorably so. Michael Bradley's late, dramatic goal against Slovenia and Landon Donovan's magic moment against Algeria will long be remembered by an indebted and growing legion of U.S Soccer supporters. It allowed the United States to not just advance, but to win the group historically over heralded England, and that's a massive improvement over the humbling stumble through Germany 2006.
The U.S. team that fell to Ghana in the Round of 16 was only in that situation because team chemistry was perfect, because players believed in one another and were willing to fight for the next guy over right to the end.
Because, the glistening opportunity of a wide open bracket aside, did anybody really think three weeks ago this was a team hell bent for the World Cup quarterfinals?
This was always a collection that was desperate for a AAA-rated striker, someone to complement Donovan's speed and ideas. There was a flagging element of creativity. It was always a team with middling back line depth; Bob Bradley's dependence on a center back that had not played competitively for eight months says it all there. It was never a team with a settled midfield; Michael Bradley was strong in his two-way role, but having four different partners alongside side him at various points suggested that he never really had one proper central collaborator.
And if anybody is truly surprised that this team kept giving up leads in South Africa, that it had serial issues with meager starts, a simple review of final-round qualifying would have spelled it out in careful detail.
Having said all that, it's all still a tough pill to swallow. Donovan admitted that players feel the cruel wrench of opportunity lost, too.
"Obviously we're very disappointed," Donovan said. "I think the way we went out is frustrating because we played a pretty good game, but made a couple of mistakes and got punished for it. It's a tough lesson to learn when you don't get a chance to redeem yourself. I guess the warning signs were there, getting scored on early, and it came back to bite us."
Still, there's five things to take away from all of this:
There will be abundant speculation about Bradley's status until U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati offers a contract extension or, tellingly, allows the current deal to quietly expire in December.
Bradley's strength also turned into his weakness here. For four years he created a predictable structure for players, and then stocked the shelves with professional attitudes and scrappy spirits. Bradley deserves a lot of credit there, because getting the mix right is more art than science and far trickier than you might think. See bungling France in 2010, rudderless England in 2010, the hopelessly cloddish United States in 1998, the mercurial Dutch in many years past, etc.
But the coach's insistence on keeping too much of the structure in place, even when it looked like so much hammering of square pegs into round holes, probably crimped effort in spots. In all four games Clint Dempsey started as a midfielder and then moved up to forward. All four! Would it really have been such a corruption of the structure to start a game that way, getting better players on the field as a result?
Nor did Bradley assist his case with some curious starting choices against Ghana. Wouldn't we all like to know what might have been if the American night had started as it played in Saturday's second half? Benny Feilhaber and Maurice Edu were in for the ineffective Robbie Findley and the nervous Ricardo Clark, with Dempsey playing further up the field to useful effect.
We might be talking about a huge quarterfinal date with Uruguay right now. Neither Clark nor Findley had a done a thing in South Africa to justify their selections as starters, and yet there they were.
By the time Bradley made his changes, not only were the Americans behind, but early substitutions hamstrung the coach in regards to further, late changes. Would Stuart Holden, DaMarcus Beasley or Edson Buddle off the bench had made a difference to a team that was looking exhausted? We'll never know. So clearly, there are consequences if personnel and tactics aren't right from the start. The coach must accept some of the blame.
Still, this team was so clearly more than the sum of its parts. And a lot of that is to Bradley's credit, for he managed to squeeze a lot of juice from imperfect fruit. Getting into the second round was always the U.S. goal -- lost opportunities aside. It wasn't Bradley's fault that the United States lacked depth at certain spots.
The biggest hole of them all, the lack of quality strikers, still needs to be addressed by the establishment. No one playing striker has scored a World Cup for the United States since 2002. Teams without a world class frontrunner can and do tiptoe into the elimination rounds, but they'll rarely be a threat to move beyond quarterfinal stage.
"We feel like in all positions we have talent," Bradley said. "But when you get to the World Cup level and everything gets challenged at the ultimate level, I think we still know we need to get better, and forward would certainly be one of those areas."
Beyond the conversations that will certainly rage on regarding upper management, this "Landycakes" business is surely dead now. That's a pejorative nickname given to Donovan by people who don't know a quality player when they see one.
Simply put, the United States doesn't make the second round in South Africa without Donovan. His ideas and speed of play weren't consistently tip-top, but they were always lurking. And truly, the United States' attack was frequently an empty calorie exercise otherwise. His two magic moments alone, the critical goals against Slovenia and Algeria (never mind keeping his nerve on Saturday's penalty kick), should be enough to quash any lingering anti-Donovan sentiment. He's now the country's all-time leader in scoring, World Cup scoring and World Cup appearances. And he's probably got one more tournament to go.
There is talent in the waiting. The likes of big L.A. Galaxy center back Omar Gonzalez and fresh, young attackers like Andy Najar will be Donovan's support cast going forward. Otherwise, Edu, Feilhaber, Findley, Holden, Jose Torres, Jozy Altidore, Jonathan Bornstein, Michael Bradley, Brad Guzan and Jonathan Spector will still be under 30 as teams land in Brazil in the summer of 2014.
So will Robbie Rogers, Sacha Kljestan, Chad Marshall and others who were paddling around in the shallow end of the player pool during qualifying. There are promising young players that we know about (Gonzalez, for instance). And believe it, there will be somebody in Brazil in four years that none of us are thinking about right now. So, there's talent in the pipeline.
And there's obviously heart in the effort -- but putting it all together will never be easy. There's such a slim margin for error at the World Cup, and that volley of reiteration may be the most important lesson of all at South Africa 2010.