Out of the frying pan and into the mixed zone they limped, angry at the world but glad to be alive.
The game conditions had been unbearable, better suited for Lawrence of Arabia than Alexi of Detroit.
The result was deplorable, a crawling, gasping 1-0 buzzard-beater by the Romanian foreign legion.
And the officiating?
Don't get the red-white-and-blue-in-the-faces started.
John Harkes' first-half yellow card nearly brought down the Rose Bowl tunnel where the American players vented steam and vitriol for nearly an hour after the final whistle.
Harkes was hit with the yellow card, his second of the tournament, while lining up for a free kick by Romania's Gheorghe Hagi. For what, Harkes couldn't say.
"I didn't move," Harkes said. "I didn't say a word."
All Harkes could do was take a few wild stabs.
"I guess I look mean," he said.
Or maybe: "Hagi just started complaining and the referee listened to him. That's Hagi. Hagi just does whatever he wants. . . .
"Where I come from, England, if you complain and get someone booked, you're cheap."
Harkes accused Hagi of influencing referee Mario Van Der Ende of the Netherlands after Harkes and his teammates had assembled their defensive wall, which must be aligned at least 10 yards from the player attempting the free kick.
"(The referee) said we were only 9 1/2, so we moved back," Harkes said. "The referee said 'Fine,' but Hagi still wanted the wall moved back. I stayed where I was. I didn't move at all. All I did was jump up and down. Then Hagi says something and I get a yellow card."
Harkes jumped again, this time at Van Der Ende, before teammate Marcelo Balboa interceded and pulled him away.
Then, Harkes and Balboa began yelling at each other. According to U.S. defender Fernando Clavijo, who was within earshot, Balboa was attempting to prevail as the cooler head.
"He told John to get back because Romania has been known to quick-kick in that situation," Clavijo said, "and he told him that there's no point in arguing with the referee. He didn't want John getting thrown out of the game."
Sunday's game, anyway.
As for the next U.S. game, if there is one, Harkes will be ineligible. His second yellow card in the first round translates into an automatic one-game suspension, although this, too, came as news to the Americans.
At first, Harkes refused to believe it. But moments earlier, a FIFA official made the announcement to the media: John Harkes out for the round of 16.
"That's a shock to me," Harkes said. "If that's so, we had better protest because, obviously, the referee was not in position to give a yellow card.
"I didn't move--you can look at the tape. That's a load of . . . ."
Walking by, U.S. defender Alexi Lalas stopped in his tracks and did a double-take.
"You're out? " he asked Harkes incredulously. "What the hell. Where are the FIFA people?"
The color of Lalas' face began to merge with the burnt orange of his hair.
"We were under the impression that all yellow cards were erased after the first round," Lalas told reporters. "That if you got a yellow card in your first and second games, you sat out the third. But if you got a yellow in your first and third games, or your second and third games, those were erased."
Sorry, guys. Wrong impression. At a hurriedly called press conference, FIFA spokesman Keith Cooper clarified the matter--single yellow cards in the first round are erased but multiple yellow cards carry over--with U.S. Soccer director of communication Thomas Lange sitting at his side.
Lange said the United States would not appeal Harkes' second yellow card, because "you're talking about a referee's decision and the referee's field is his domain. Traditionally, there is no avenue for appeal."
Meanwhile, the mixed zone outside the U.S. dressing room remained a hall of confusion. What would the Americans do without Harkes, one of their most internationally tested and best two-way players.
"Maybe (injured) Claudio Reyna will be ready by then," assistant coach Sigi Schmid suggested. "Cobi Jones is another option. We have some options."
All throughout the tunnel, U.S. frustration raged. Lalas nearly lost it altogether when someone holding a microphone asked, "So, you'll either get Brazil or Germany in your next game. What's the difference between the two?"
"They're different continents," Lalas shot back. "And the Germans have last names.
"What's the difference? Man, you're talking about two great teams. Brazil has been kicking (butt) all over the place, Germany is the defending champion of this thing. . . . "
Lalas bit his tongue and gritted his teeth.
"I just want to get to the second round," he said with a sigh.
Minutes later, Lalas and his teammates boarded the getaway bus. Air-conditioned transport never sounded so good.