SINSHEIM, Germany -- World Cups aren't just about championship glory, contenders' heartbreak and the occasional meltdown. For much of the world, the Cup is a chance to measure progress and see what else it can do.
No team is likely to gain more from this experience than Colombia, a young team taking the first steps toward joining Brazil and Mexico as a Latin American nation that can play at the elite level.
Colombia isn't there yet -- the 3-0 loss Saturday to the United States surely could have been worse. But the team already looked better against the elite than the "second" team from South America -- after Brazil -- has looked in the past. Consider Germany's 11-0 trouncing of Argentina in 2007.
And this entire Colombia team could return in 2015 with its roster intact, older and wiser. Nine of the players on Colombia's roster, and four in the starting lineup, played on the Under-20 team that placed fourth in the world championships last summer in Germany. The flipside of youth, though, is inexperience. The best résumé on the team belongs to defender Nataly Arias, who grew up in Alexandria, Va., and was a team captain at the University of Maryland.
"It's a tough loss for us, but at the same time, I feel proud of what we did in this game," Arias said. "We forced our style of play a little bit and had them on their heels for a while. We just gave away some silly goals. That's youth. That comes with the territory a little bit. But we'll learn and we'll get better."
U.S. defender Stephanie Cox saw some good building blocks for the future.
"They're very good on the ball," Cox said. "I felt like their attack was multidimensional -- they had a fast forward up top, and they looked for some balls behind [the defense], but also some good combinations."
Coach Ricardo Rozo coached the U20 team in the world championships last year, and he's careful not to throw his young players into situations in which he thinks they'll be overmatched.
"With the speed and dynamics of the U.S. team, we just couldn't keep up," Rozo said. In particular, Rozo isn't counting on U20 star Yoreli Rincón to push his team, and Arias downplayed expectations that had been placed on Rincón.
"We're talking about a 17-year-old," Arias said. "This is her first senior-level World Cup. It's tough to put your hopes on such a young kid. The leap between youth and senior-level World Cups is huge. We're talking about [U.S.] players that have played professionally since they were 20 years old and they're 29, 30 now."
That experience was a formidable obstacle. Colombia spent much of the first half pinned in its defensive end, getting its only shots from long distance and not threatening the U.S. goal.
Yet Colombia caused the U.S. defense some uneasiness at times, leaving captain Christie Rampone to clean up just before the Colombian forwards could test goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was finally called into action a couple of times in the second half.
"It was what I expected, but I also was impressed with what we did," Arias said. "It was a 3-0 game. It could've been worse, but we could've gotten a couple of them too. We had our chances. We got forward, and most people thought we weren't going to pass midfield."
For a few seconds late in the first half, Colombia and most of the stadium thought it had leveled the game 1-1. But the assistant referee's flag was up for an offside call.
"This was really a disappointment when this goal was disallowed," Rozo said. "This was a setback from a psychological perspective."
After the halftime break, U.S. midfielder Megan Rapinoe quickly scored, leaving Colombia a difficult deficit from which Rozo said his team never recovered.
Rozo concedes that Colombia is a "macho" country that has not put much emphasis on the women's game until recently.
"Our team is growing -- we've seen the U17s and the U20s," Rozo said. "But this is the elite of the world, and in Colombia, women's soccer is still in its infancy."
But Rozo has big dreams.
"We are an ambitious team," Rozo said. "We want to make progress, we want to win. This is not the end of our hope. We're not going to be depressive because of this result. We're going to continue to fight for women's soccer in Colombia. Sometime, who knows, maybe we'll win the World Cup."