Reporting from Rustenburg, South Africa — Out here in the bone-dry South African bushveld, with the haze of grass fires hanging thickly in the night air, it is difficult to remember all the places where earlier dreams died.
Places such as Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1930; Recife, Brazil, in 1950; Florence, Italy, in 1990; Palo Alto, Calif., in 1994; Nantes, France, in 1998; Ulsan, South Korea, in 2002, and Nuremburg, Germany, in 2006.
On Saturday, Rustenburg, South Africa, was added to the unhappy roll call. It was here, in Royal Bafokeng Stadium, that the U.S. national team's great African adventure of 2010 reached its sad conclusion.
Americans have come this way before. Until the day when the World Cup is actually won by a U.S. team — and that day will come — defeat is the reality that ends the tournament.
It has to be faced with as brave a face as possible, and on Saturday night it was.
"It's disappointing, it's hard, it hurts," said goalkeeper Tim Howard, echoing similar sentiments from all the U.S. players. Some walked tight-lipped through the postgame mixed zone, choosing not to stop. Others had only a few words.
For Ghana, it was a different story. By winning, the Black Stars became only the third African team to reach the quarterfinals of a World Cup.
Cameroon, led by the irrepressible Roger Miller and the goalkeeping of Thomas Nkono, was the first, in Italy in 1990. Senegal, with Boupa Diop in rare goal-scoring form, matched the accomplishment in 2002, when South Korea and Japan co-hosted the tournament.
Now, it is Ghana's flag that flies high. The victory was a deserved one. The U.S. had its chances, but for once, luck was not on its side. This time, there was no great comeback, only a partial one. This time, there was no late miracle goal.
Bob Bradley, the team's coach, put it best.
"There were so many attacking plays that seemed to just miss," he said. "The timing would be a little off, the last ball would be a little off, some of our crosses weren't as good as they needed to be."
And so, at the end, the most bruised and bloodied of the American warriors, Clint Dempsey, exchanged shirts with Ghana defender John Pantsil. The two are teammates at Fulham in the English Premier League.
Dempsey then walked off toward the somber reality of the U.S. locker room. Pantsil made a different journey. He ventured to the far side of the stadium where some Ghana fans were grouped.
From them, Pantsil received a Ghana flag, the black star proudly emblazoned on the field of yellow, green and red.
With flag in hand, Pantsil set off on a celebratory jaunt around the stadium's track, the flag waving high above him. The celebration was not staged, it was spontaneous and heartfelt.
And all of Africa shared the moment.
Looking at the game from a big-picture perspective, could Howard, for instance, be happy for Africa?
His answer was quick.
"It's obviously good for the game," he replied, "but I would have liked to disappoint a lot of people and gone through. It wasn't to be."
Earlier World Cups have ended in acceptance, acrimony and anger for U.S. teams.
In 1994, a loss to eventual champion Brazil was seen almost as the natural order of things. In 1998, there was a sour aftertaste, with finger-pointing and accusations among a splintered team. Four years later, a dubious non-call by Scottish referee Hugh Dallas on a handball by Germany cost the U.S. a chance to reach the semifinals. There was anger, then.
This time around, there was simply disappointment.
The successes of the first round, when England and Slovenia were held to ties and Algeria was beaten, raised expectations to too high a level, perhaps. The team and the country celebrated a little too long and a little too soon.
There was bound to be a letdown.
But the U.S. was up against more than Ghana on Saturday night. It was up against a continent. Not that Bradley agreed with that notion.
"I don't think that was a factor," he said. "We had a country behind us. We had great fans in the stadium tonight, and we had a belief that we could win."
So did Ghana.
Long after midnight, the U.S. team bus set off on the long trek back to its base camp in Irene a couple of hours away. The smoke from the grass fires still hung in the air. The moon still hung high in the African sky.
But dawn and a new beginning seemed a long way away.