IRENE, South Africa -- They started scattering Sunday to the United States and Europe, never to come together as a group again.

All the optimism had vanished, four years of planning and effort foiled by a debilitating defense, faltering forwards and, in the ultimate insult to their pride, a sudden realization the most-talented soccer team in American history still wasn't good enough to consistently compete with the world's best.

"There's a pretty empty feeling right now because I think coming out of the first round, we felt that there was a real chance of doing something bigger," U.S. coach Bob Bradley said the day after a 2-1 overtime loss to Ghana eliminated the Americans in the World Cup's second round.

While the roosters crowed at Irene Farm and people streamed in for brunch, it was the last day for the American soccer team in South Africa, where players arrived May 31 filled with optimism and enthusiasm.

They're leaving dismayed.

Many of these players will never see a World Cup again.

What went wrong? Pretty simple to discern.

"For the four games, we were only ahead for two minutes," Bradley said (actually it was three) after reviewing the recording of Saturday's loss. "The one side is just the maturity, the experience of knowing sometimes early in the game how to manage the game."

Now the U.S. team is off until Aug. 10, when it plays Brazil in an exhibition at the New Meadowlands Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. Bradley already is thinking about that game, but he may not be there.

Bradley took over from Bruce Arena after the U.S. made a first-round exit in 2006, getting the job only after Juergen Klinsmann withdrew. Bradley said he and U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati need time to make an assessment.

Even if Bradley returns, the defense needs a complete overhaul, a process that will start to unfold between August and next year's CONCACAF Gold Cup.

New players will be tested by 2012, when qualifying starts for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

Oguchi Onyewu showed he hadn't fully regained mobility following knee surgery last October. Jay DeMerit and captain Carlos Bocanegra were a step late at key moments, leaving the openings that led to goals.

"In some cases, there's players that still can help the team, but you're not certain what that will mean in four years time," Bradley said.

Bocanegra and Steve Cherundolo are 31, DeMerit 30 and Onyewu 28. Bradley finally admitted "it would be impossible for Gooch to be at 100 percent" given his seven-month layoff.

Clarence Goodson, who didn't get into a game, is 28. Jonathan Spector (24) and Jonathan Bornstein (25) have a chance to be back in four years, along with two players who were cut: Chad Marshall and Heath Pearce (both 25). There are numerous candidates to weave into the player pool, including Gale Agbossoumonde (18), Eric Lichaj (21), Omar Gonzalez (21), Ike Opara (21), Kevin Alston (22) and Tim Ream (22).

Lichaj and Agbossoumonde already have gone to Europe, a path that has helped players gain spots on the national team. Just four of the 23 players on this year's World Cup roster are with Major League Soccer clubs, including Landon Donovan, who spent part of this year with Everton.

Now 28, Donovan is the best American player ever, and if he's going to make a permanent move to Europe, this is the time. With three goals, he was the undisputed star of the U.S. team.

Midfield is the U.S. strong spot, with Clint Dempsey (27) also in his best years and Michael Bradley (22) -- the coach's son -- establishing himself as one of the best young players in the tournament.But forward is barren. All five U.S. goals came from the midfield.

Fans wonder what might have been had Charlie Davies (24) not been in a car crash last October that nearly killed him on the eve of the last qualifier.

Given a favorable position in the knockout rounds after winning its group for the first time in 80 years, the U.S. cracked.

"If we were a little less naive tonight, we would have advanced," Donovan said.

Naivete wasn't the problem. Defense was.