The United States did more than lose a game when it fell 2-1 to Ghana in its World Cup Round of 16 game Saturday.
It lost an opportunity.
While most teams were playing for national pride, the United States was playing for the future of the sport in this country.
There's no doubt this World Cup has helped soccer become more popular here - to what extent isn't known yet, though TV ratings have been surprisingly good - and a few weeks ago winning their group would have been considered a success for the Americans. You can't help but wonder what might have been if the United States had defeated Ghana and gained a berth in the quarterfinals against an unimposing Uruguay squad.
The semifinals were a realistic goal the way the bracket broke down. Unfortunately, the Americans broke down too.
It started with the lineup coach Bob Bradley put on the field. Ricardo Clark and Robbie Findley never should have seen the field.
Clark is a defensive midfielder without many offensive skills, which was seen when he tried to dribble past a Ghanaian player, got stripped and watched as Ghana went on to score the game's first goal. Thenm as he often does, Clark earned a yellow card and had to be pulled from the game in the 30th minute, costing the United States an important substitution later when the game went into extra time.
Findley is a speed demon who was a surprise addition to the 23-man roster. That he saw any playing time also was a surprise, because he doesn't have the skill to play internationally, only the speed. He too was removed early out of necessity, a costly substitution.
In essence, Bradley admitted and corrected his mistakes before the second half started. But it was too late.
Goalkeeper Tim Howard needed to be special but wasn't. Same with Landon Donovan, who was pretty good when greatness was needed.
Back to the good news. The game drew 19.4 million viewers on ABC and Univision combined, the same number that Fox averaged for the World Series last year.
"That's phenomenal," said Stephen Master, the vice president for sports at the Nielsen Company told the New York Times. "If the U.S. had kept going, to the quarters and semifinal, you would have gotten really big numbers."
"The missed opportunity is partly a chance to get to the quarters and the matchup with Uruguay," said U.S. Soccer boss Sunil Gulati, "but it's also a missed opportunity to stay in the American public's eyes for another four, five, six days, maybe 10 days, when interest is at an all-time high.
"I have no doubt there will still be people at bars watching games at strange times, that the TV ratings will still be good. But what the ratings might have been for a quarterfinal game or dreaming beyond that, it's certainly a missed opportunity."
So now the United States can only look to Brazil 2014, and there is some good news.
Michael Bradley, Stuart Holden, Jonathan Bornstein, Jonathan Spector, Jose Torres, Jozy Altidore, Maurice Edu, Brad Guzan and Benny Feilhaber are all 25 years old or younger and will be in their prime in four years.
Howard will be 35, not too old for a goalkeeper. Clint Dempsey will be 31, but will his all-out style of play wear him out by then? Landon Donovan will be 32 and can't be expected to play every minute as he did in South Africa. He has been an irreplaceable player, the most-skilled player to wear the U.S. kit, but the coach will have to find a replacement.
Who the coach will be is anyone's guess at this point. Bradley's contract will be up soon. Four years is a long time to hold a job like this. Does he want to continue? Does Gulati still want him to continue despite his mistakes?
To his credit, Bradley took his team further than Raymond Domenech took France or Marcello Lippi took Italy. The Americans went as far as England, Portugal and archrival Mexico.
The Americans did well, but they could have done better.
It all starts anew when the United States hosts Brazil on Aug. 10 in a friendly at the New Meadowlands Stadium. More than 30,000 tickets already have been sold. Those fans can expect to see a lot of new faces get their chance to earn their way into the player pool.