SYDNEY, Australia - They came here viewed as the sickly sibling to their big sister, but how much of a growth spurt did the U.S. men's soccer program have at the Olympics?
"How far have we come?" coach Clive Charles said. "It's gotten to the point where the U.S. men's soccer team will be disappointed not to get a medal."
The American dream of playing in Saturday's gold-medal match was undercut by weary legs and Spain's superior technical skills last night when the United States was beaten, 3-1, in the semifinals.
Spain will go for its second gold medal in three Olympics against Cameroon on Saturday. The United States will meet Chile on Friday for the bronze, the first time in 12 Olympic appearances it has gotten to the medal round.
It would be a considerable achievement for the American men, who have faced a long struggle to be taken seriously by the world soccer community.
Flat-footed in the back and listless on attack, the United States fell behind 2-0 and couldn't catch up.
Playing on a slick field in front of 39,800 at Sydney Football Stadium, a mini-RFK, it was an extremely long night for central defender Danny Califf, who played for the University of Maryland the past two autumns, but now works for the Los Angeles Galaxy of Major League Soccer.
Califf had been one of the revelations of the Olympics. There also had been high regard all around for the Americans, as Charles' team was unbeaten in a tough pool.
The quarterfinal match with Japan was decided on penalty kicks. That two-hour ordeal, paired with the hassles of a fifth match at a third venue and an in-and-out stay at the Olympic Village left the U.S. team looking like it needed a nap.
"The gas was out of the tank," Charles said. "I looked at Danny [Califf] and Chad [McCarty], and I knew they were in for a tough time about 10 minutes into the game. They're playing against two quality strikers, but they've been chasing around world-class strikers the last 12 days and done very, very well.
"It got to the point tonight where we were just a half-step slower all-around. And, we played against a very good team, a brilliant team."
While the American women can use Mia Hamm and the rest of the national team when the World Cup champions play Norway for the gold medal tomorrow, FIFA decrees that the Olympics are an under-23 affair for the men.
Spain featured 21-year-old front-runner Jose Mari and veterans from its Primera Liga. The majority of the Americans play in the MLS, which is in the midst of its playoffs.
"There were days when I never thought we would be in this particular situation, with an Olympic medal as our aspiration," said John Ellinger, one of the U.S. assistant coaches.
"We've gone into an environment that's been exciting for all of us. This was a big stage; some of the best teams in the world are here. Italy's payroll is something like $450 million."
Head coach at UMBC from 1981-90, Ellinger refines some of the talent in the U.S. pipeline as coach of the under-17 national team. He recently relocated his family from Ellicott City to Bradenton, Fla., where the U-17's train.
Devin Barclay, a former McDonogh School player, is on the U-18 team, but trains with Ellinger, whose job is to develop players who can help the United States in the 2006 and 2010 World Cups.
Yesterday, the United States closed Spain's lead when over-age defender Frankie Hejduk was taken down in the area and Pete Vagenas converted the penalty kick in the 42nd minute. Mari thwarted the Americans one last time in the 87th minute, when he put in a rebound.
Goalkeeper Brad Friedel, another over-age player, had little support in front of him and a scrape on his forehead, courtesy of a boot of Spanish leather.
"All is not lost," Califf said of the outcome, "but we're in a position where we're never going to accept this."