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• Why does the U.S. fall behind so quickly?
The Americans yielded the two earliest goals of the World Cup through Monday—to England's Gerrard (in the fourth minute) and to Ghana's Kevin Prince Boateng (in the fifth)—in addition to going down early against Slovenia. It wasn't a new trend either, considering the U.S. defense allowed the first goal in six of its final 10 World Cup qualifiers. The reason may be anything from a lack of focus to being too emotionally pumped up before the kickoff. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves when we do that," said Howard, who didn't have any major gaffes but could have done better on a couple of goals the U.S. allowed. "We need to make teams work a lot harder for goals. You look at the best teams, and when they get scored on, it doesn't come very easily." Yet Howard, 31, was quick to take responsibility for any of his own shortcomings after the Ghana game: "In big games a keeper has to make enough saves, and I didn't make enough saves."
• Where does Donovan go from here?
Already the U.S.'s alltime leader in goals (45) and assists (42), the 28-year-old scored three times in World Cup 2010, bringing his career total to five (the most ever scored by a CONCACAF player). All three were crucial: his roof job to start the comeback in a 2--2 tie against Slovenia, his injury-time game-winner to beat Algeria and stave off elimination, and his penalty-kick equalizer against Ghana. Using Donovan's high standards, though, he was dominant in only one of four games (against Slovenia, particularly in the second half) and was overshadowed by fellow midfielder Clint Dempsey in the loss to Ghana. Will Donovan come back for a fourth World Cup in 2014? Barring injury, it seems likely, though the U.S. will have to hope that by then someone younger has filled his role as the team's best player.
Perhaps the bigger question is whether Donovan will move this summer from the Galaxy to a European team willing to pay a hefty transfer fee (from $8 million to $12 million). His successful 10-week loan to England's Everton earlier this year won Donovan European respect, and if he's going to make a move, it will need to be soon.
• How will the U.S. improve?
Any assessment of the U.S.'s talent has to acknowledge that, while Bradley's team was better than the sum of its parts, those parts need to get better. More Americans than ever play overseas, but some of them need to take the next step to top European clubs. One position in particular that needs addressing is forward: No U.S. striker has scored at a World Cup since 2002. While Jozy Altidore, 20, and the injured Charlie Davies, 24, have shown promise, they need to make significant strides in the next four-year cycle, and others need to emerge. "We feel like in all positions we have talent," says Bob Bradley, "but when we get to the World Cup level ... we still know we need to get better, and forward would certainly be one of those areas."
The U.S. would benefit from a little more skill and a little less emotion when the whistle blows for Brazil 2014. Teams that rely on emotion have a hard time maintaining it for an entire tournament, no matter how righteous it may be. Skill endures. In the end, this U.S. team did its fans proud in South Africa but has left them dreaming of what might have been.