GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Less than nine hours after the United States U-20 national team lost 2-1 to the host nation in the quarterfinals of the CONCACAF Championship, Dillon Powers wandered into the departure area at La Aurora International Airport.
The Notre Dame midfielder, still wearing a tournament credential that read "jugador" around his neck, joined teammates Omar Salgado, Kelyn Rowe and a few other members of the US team as they sat in varying stages of dejection, waiting for flights that would send them to varying destinations around the world.
The group knew they were leaving the competition five days too soon.
They were supposed to depart Guatemala City on Monday after winning the regional championship. At the very least, this team – one of the best groups of young talent the US has ever produced – was considered a shoo-in to make the semifinals and qualify for the World Cup, where they expected to match or exceed the 2007 squad's deep run.
But the Chapines dashed those hopes and dreams in front of 30,000 blue-and-white-clad fans in Estadio Mateo Flores on Wednesday night.
[inline_node:332790]"[Guatemala showed that with] heart, good football, being able to suffer and endure and have some luck at times, you can win games," Thomas Rongen said in a press conference after the match.
The head coach appeared as disappointed as his players, but the seeds of the loss were sown before the team arrived in Central America.
On Wednesday night, the team missed the attacking talents of Josh Gatt, Adrian Ruelas and Juan Agudelo. Rongen's 4-3-3 worked when the pieces fit, but Bobby Wood and Eder Arreola sat out due to injury, Dillon Powers never figured in the mix and Joe Gyau was not 100 percent. The coach was short on options; in this tournament, Salgado was never going to be the answer off the bench.
There are lessons to learn from the loss, both personnel- and tactics-based, but Rongen and the rest of US Soccer can digest those in a week or a month or a year. For now, it's enough to say the Americans should have won, could have won, but they didn't.
Not qualifying for the World Cup is an epic failure for headline-writers across the country, but it isn't, ultimately, an the biggest one. The squad that fell isn't the best American team to miss the World Cup (the 2011 women's U-17 side is) or the biggest disappointment in international play (the Landon Donovan-led 2004 Olympic qualifying team is). They are merely another addition to the US narrative of collapsing at crucial junctures.
[inline_node:333150]This is a problem for the Americans in general, but it will take time to solve. Fixing that isn't the purview of 20 guys in Guatemala, but it would have been nice if they bucked the trend.
Perhaps the disappointment will hurt the American effort to recruit players – Fabian Hürzeler, already on the fence, may be lost – but it won't significantly hamper these attempts in the long run. The soccer world understands the letdown was a minor blip in the otherwise upward trajectory of the sport in America.
Say what you will about Rongen's game management, but don't discount the impressive level of talent he brought to Guatemala, nor the additional resources he could have called upon – players that he and his staff unearthed – to join the US in Colombia.
Which brings us back to Powers, Salgado, Rowe and the rest of the 20 young men who will made their way to the airport Thursday morning. They were crushed, but each one has a bright future. Collectively, the future looks better than it has for any previous group of American youths.
The guys leaving Central America turn their focus to their clubs with an eye on their future with the US. Some will look toward the Olympics, others will hope to get another chance with the U-20s in two years. Either way, the ball keeps rolling.
Noah Davis covers the United States national team for MLSsoccer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @noahedavis.com.