NUREMBERG, Germany -- It is the players you feel for, the veterans who have spent a decade chasing an elusive dream, firm in the belief that one day, surely, soccer's World Cup trophy would be held high by an American.
It's not likely to come true in the near future.
That dream died here yesterday as the United States lost to Ghana, 2-1, eliminating the Americans from the World Cup, just as it died four years ago in South Korea, and four years before that in France.
The United States is still learning to play what Pele described as "the beautiful game." Not beautifully. Not as well as others yet, true, but better than it once did. There was a 40-year gap between the U.S. appearance in the 1950 World Cup in Brazil and the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
It was a black hole, a lost generation.
But since 1990, the U.S. has qualified for the World Cup five times in a row and even reached the quarterfinals in 2002, spurring hope for this year's team.
Had the U.S. won yesterday, it would have played defending champion Brazil in the second round. And that game, against the magical Brazilians, regardless of the result, could have edged soccer in the U.S. in the right direction - closer to the sports it strives to match, closer to football, closer to baseball, closer to basketball, in public opinion.
The audience would have been huge, the interest immense.
Instead, the nation now turns its attention elsewhere. In the ESPN age, there is always something else: the NBA draft comes next week, in July NFL training camps open, and baseball's pennant races will soon heat up.
But soccer in the U.S. suffers from more than only a lack of public attention. Most of America's best athletes continue to head for the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL, where the financial rewards are far greater.
Another problem is that in the four-year cycle between World Cups, the U.S. team doesn't play enough strong opponents in Europe, or in South America, against Brazil and Argentina. They tend to stay in their region and play Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama, teams that are not good enough to raise the level of their competition.
Fortunately, the American soccer dream constantly reinvents itself, springing up with each season, when youngsters from New Jersey, like Claudio Reyna, or from North Carolina, like Eddie Pope, or from Illinois, like Brian McBride, first step onto a soccer field.
And so you feel for the likes of Reyna, Pope and McBride, who have pursued the dream honestly and to the best of their ability for a dozen years and three World Cups.
They have gone through the countless training camps, the sacrifices it takes to keep their bodies in shape, the endless drudgery of air travel, the tricky qualifying games in not-so-fan-friendly places as Mazatenango, Guatemala; San Pedro Sula, Honduras; St. George's, Grenada; and San Jose, Costa Rica.
The U.S. team, whether under coach Bob Gansler in 1990, Bora Milutinovic in 1994, Steve Sampson in 1998 and Bruce Arena in 2002 and 2006, has always tried to foster a positive relationship with its fans and the media. The players are accessible and outgoing. They are ambassadors. For the sport. For the future.
Today, that future looks murky again. Arena is mulling other options. Some players, including Reyna, have announced their retirement. And the younger generation is disappointed by the team's first-round exit from Germany.
This time, the dream dissolved at the feet of a Ghana team flying its own colors and those of all Africa. It died because of a questionable refereeing decision, because of injury to the most influential American player and because, in the end, the Ghanaians simply were the better side.
The referees' call in question happened during first-half injury time, after a rare flash of offense had let the Americans tie it 1-1.
Defender Oguchi Onyewu, the tallest U.S. player at 6 feet 4, was jostling with 5-8 Razak Pimpong for a header at the edge of the penalty area.
Pimpong fell. Convinced the contact was slight, U.S. players angrily argued the awarding of a penalty kick, but to no avail.
On the shot, goalkeeper Kasey Keller dived to his left. Ghana captain Stephen Appiah booted the ball high to the goalkeeper's right.
It was the second time the U.S. fell a goal down. But this time, Ghana was up for good.
Haminu Draman had put Ghana ahead in the 22nd minute. Colliding knee to knee with Reyna, Draman stole the ball and then beat Keller on a breakaway.
Clint Dempsey tied it in the 43rd minute with a 10-yard volley off a perfect cross from DaMarcus Beasley. But Dempsey's funky dance and the American joy that followed was short lived, crushed by the penalty.
"I think we'd all agree it wasn't a good call," Arena said. "We had control of the game and we go in at halftime down a goal. But those things happen, and they happen a lot to our team."
Grahame L. Jones writes for the Los Angeles Times. The Associated Press contributed to this article.