[MY VIEW] The overwhelming sense you got after the USA fell to Ghana Saturday was that it was an opportunity lost. A chance to, as even Bob Bradley said right after the game, "go deep in the tournament." But the USA's dramatic advancement to the round of 16 and its favorable bracket created expectations that were far greater than reality.
This wasn't the first time the USA lost an opportunity to do something big. In 2002, it reached the quarterfinals, where it outplayed Germany but lost, 1-0. Your immediate reaction then was that the USA could go years and never get close to the final four again.
How fragile a World Cup campaign can be was proved four years later when the USA went out after three games with what was a more experienced team.
A lot of factors go into a successful World Cup -- player personnel, of course, but also team chemistry, preparation, coaching, the draw and luck. If any one of them is missing, a World Cup can be doomed.
This was a World Cup where everything seemed to be working. You could see it in the body language of the U.S. players. How they prepared for the games. How they celebrated together. It was a lot like 2002 in South Korea, where Bruce Arena had arranged for the players to stay in the heart of Seoul with their families.
Then as now, the USA was one big happy family. Problem is, that only gets you so far. The USA simply wasn't good enough.
The difference between the 2002 and 2010 World Cups, of course, was the interest level.
The games eight years ago were played in the middle of the night. In 2002, ESPN broadcast the games in an arrangement brokered by MLS. In 2010, ESPN had paid heavily for the rights and took a big interest in promoting its coverage.
Soccer is eight years on, and it's that much more entrenched in our sports culture, particularly among those in their 20s and 30s.
You could see the excitement the USA's run to the final of the Confederations Cup generated last year when it finished second -- and that was for a tournament few had heard of and ESPN covered as almost an afterthought.
The excitement the USA's run at the World Cup generated was no surprise here.
What it means is hard to say. The only thing similar was the 1999 Women's World Cup. Look what it got women's soccer. Little.
Men's soccer is much stronger today than women's soccer was in 1999, and MLS is much stronger than it was eight years ago when its owners bought the World Cup rights so ESPN would broadcast MLS games. It had only 10 teams in 2002 but will have 18 in 2011 and another on the way in 2012.
Will the USA be back as strong in 2014? Hard to say.
Many of the key players -- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Tim Howard -- will be in their 30s.
There aren't many players coming up. That was made evident on Saturday as Ghana started three players from its 2009 Under-20 World Cup championship team. Who does the USA have coming up from its U-20 team? Maybe one or two of its graduates are even playing first-team soccer. The top young prospect in MLS, D.C. United's Andy Najar, isn't even eligible to play for the USA.
Every four years, foreign journalists come out of the woodwork and ask for our opinions on soccer. Almost always they will ask whether soccer will make it in the United States. As if there was any doubt about it.
Thinking ahead to the (for now) Brazil-hosted 2014 World Cup, a Brazilian reporter asked me the other day whether Americans think they will win the World Cup in Brazil.
It took me a second to understand the logic of his question, assuming the USA will build on its success in South Africa.
I had to say no.
We're not like Brazilians, who expect to win every World Cup.
We're still happy to get a chance to dream every now and then.