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PRETORIA, South Africa -- The U.S. national team has been on quite a roller-coaster ride these past two weeks. It started ominously, as the Americans coughed up a goal to England less than four minutes into their opening match. It ended with players hanging their heads after a painful extra-time defeat to Ghana.
But in between, the U.S. provided its fans with enough highs to sustain them until World Cup qualifying starts roughly two years from now. In the process, the U.S. team revealed plenty about itself. Here's what has been learned since the Americans arrived in South Africa on the last day of May.
1. The U.S. made its mentality count
The Americans were rightly lauded for their never-say-die attitude. This isn't a new development. The Yanks have long been lauded by opposing coaches and players alike. So has the team's fitness. What was different this time was that the U.S. had the skill, self-belief and discipline to grind out results. Landon Donovan, Michael Bradley and Clint Dempsey showed that they are match winners on their day. The team also played with a confidence that hasn't always been one of its hallmarks.
It's also worth noting that the U.S. incurred only one suspension during the tournament, which was due to Robbie Findley's mysterious yellow against Slovenia when the ball hit him in the face. Granted, Steve Cherundolo would have been the second player to be suspended had the U.S. advanced, but this stands in stark contrast to previous tournaments when the Americans incurred a parade of red and yellow cards. These factors are the difference between advancing to the knockout stages and going home after three games.
2. Team defense was this side's undoing
The U.S. never was able to shake its habit of giving up early goals, continuing a trend from World Cup qualifying. It's easy to fall into the trap of saying the team lacked focus or that manager Bob Bradley didn't have his side ready to play. Precisely what can a manager do other than call attention to the problem and hold people accountable for their mistakes? Clearly, Bradley did both these things, meaning that at some point the onus for the early goals has to fall on the players themselves.
This side was simply not good enough defensively to avoid making backbreaking mistakes. At this level, those kinds of gaffes get punished. And to be clear, this is not a dig only at the back line. The midfield was culpable as well.
3. Donovan stepped up; Dempsey did, too
What a difference four years makes. In Germany, Donovan was tentative and ineffective. In South Africa, he was aggressive and confident. Without his goals against Slovenia and Algeria, there would have been no advancement to the second round. Did Donovan go through some stretches when he didn't get enough of the ball? Certainly, but that hardly makes him unique. He delivered at enough critical moments to make people forget the disappointment of 2006.
Although Dempsey scored just a solitary, fortuitous goal against England, his work rate, determination and ability were there for all to see. In the process he took massive amounts of abuse from opposition defenders. The U.S. will be hoping that Dempsey can stay healthy enough to make another run in 2014.
4. Injuries took their toll
It was by a razor-thin margin that the U.S. exited the tournament in the second round. The same could be said for its advancement out of the group stage. Now that it's all over, it's clear that the Americans would have benefited from having a healthy Charlie Davies and a fully fit Oguchi Onyewu.
Onyewu insisted all along that he felt fine physically, but you could tell that his mental sharpness had been dulled from not playing in a competitive fixture for almost nine months following patellar tendon surgery on his left knee. Onyewu was partially responsible for all the goals the U.S. conceded in its first two games, something that would have been unlikely had his form been at the level he showed in last year's Confederations Cup.
Davies was a massive loss as well. Much has been made of the inability of American forwards to score. Donovan's strike against Mexico in 2002 remains the last time a U.S. striker found the net at a World Cup. That only drives home the point that despite Bradley's best efforts, he was never able to replace the speed, tenacity and, most importantly, the finishing ability that Davies displayed before sustaining serious injuries in an October car crash.
Granted, injuries are part of the game, and many teams at this World Cup were left ruing the absence of top stars. The Americans' lack of depth at the forward position is also glaring, although the U.S. is by no means the only country that has had trouble producing top-quality strikers.
5. Michael Bradley is a star in the making
No U.S. player's stock rose more during this World Cup than Bradley's. His tenacity on defense, box-to-box running and ability to finish chances revealed a player who is on the cusp of being a star. He also managed to get through the tournament without incurring a single booking, which given his past performances is borderline shocking. Going forward, he will be one of the key cogs around which the U.S. team is based as it prepares for the next World Cup in Brazil.
In the interim, you have to figure that Bradley's club side, Borussia Monchengladbach, will be fielding some calls in the coming weeks inquiring as to his availability. It seems that Bradley will command top dollar.
Jeff Carlisle covers MLS and the U.S. national team for ESPNsoccernet. He is also the author of "Soccer's Most Wanted II: The Top 10 Book of More Glorious Goals, Superb Saves and Fantastic Free-Kicks." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.