They came to the World Cup seeking the respect of Europe. They left trying to salvage it back home.

Soccer in the United States is at its lowest point since 1985, when America failed for the ninth straight time in World Cup qualifying. As angry, finger-pointing players left U.S. camp early Friday, finishing dead last in the 32-nation field, it appeared the Amer-ican goal of winning the tournament by 2010 is ludicrous."We aren't going to have a world championship, competitive team for some time to come," said U.S. Soccer Federation president Alan Rothenberg, who launched the 2010 project last month. "We are doing it an inch at a time, not a mile at a time. . . . We can't be foolish dreamers."

What went wrong for the United States at the World Cup?

What didn't?

There was no offense and sloppy defense, plus bad attitudes and TV ratings. Players started whining the moment they reached their 12th century chateau and kept up the complaints through the 2-0 loss to Germany, 2-1 defeat to Iran and 1-0 loss to Yugoslavia.

Veterans, stung by coach Steve Sampson's decision to cut captain John Harkes in April and angered by their lack of playing time, saved their best shots for their coach.

Now it's unclear whether Sampson will be back or whether Rothenberg will replace him before Aug. 23, when either Robert Contiguglia, a doctor, or Lawrence Monaco, a retired government lawyer, takes over as president.

If Sampson is fired, Rothenberg probably will seek a high-profile foreigner. The top American candidate appears to be D.C. United coach Bruce Arena, but when the job was vacant in 1995, Rothenberg first tried to hire Carlos Alberto Parreira of Brazil and Carlos Queiroz of Portugal before settling for Sampson.

No matter the coach, the athletes won't change. And U.S. soccer found out how far it trails Europe and South America.

"In the rest of the world, you live, you eat, you breathe soccer," Sampson said Friday, "and that is the only way to be able to compete with the rest of the world."

Essentially declaring war on the NCAA and its limits on the number of games, the USSF is urging the top prospects to skip college and become professionals in their teens. As part of the development plan, elite youth will spend extended periods overseas.

"We're always playing catchup," Sampson said. "College soccer is not the answer."

Goal scorers are the key. The Americans have just 15 goals in 15 games this year, and just one at the World Cup - by Brian McBride with two minutes to go against Iran.

"One message that has to be sent to the national team program is we need players who are more accurate in front of the goal," Sampson said. "We need star athletes with greater technical speed, physical speed and great speed of thought. . . . These things do not come easily. You have to have players in highly competitive environments for long periods of time."

In other words: The current crop isn't doing the job.

"One goal in three games isn't good enough," midfielder Joe-Max Moore said. "It's not going to get you out of the first round of the World Cup."

After not qualifying for the World Cup from 1950-86, the Americans have made it three straight times. But they're just 1-8-1 and have been outscored 17-6. They're playing a much better brand of soccer - more attacking, less defensive, maintaining possession more often - but that hasn't translated into success.

Sampson said the solution for scoring is with youth, that it's too late for this bunch.

"Those are things that are taught when you are younger," he said. "As a professional player, you come into a national team with 98 percent of your professional ability."

In an effort to improve what the Americans do have, Sampson is encouraging the top players to leave Major League Soccer and go to Europe. D.C. United defender Eddie Pope is the most sought American player, and two German teams appear willing to pay a multimillion-dollar transfer fee to get him. McBride and Cobi Jones are others who have attracted interest.

"If they have the opportunity," Sampson said, "they should grasp it and take advantage of it."

Slowly, soccer is starting to grow in America. Because of that, Eric Wynalda saw one speck of brightness in all the gloom.

"This is kind of good," he said. "It's not like people don't care anymore. There's a lot of people back home that we've disappointed, and we feel responsible for creating this. As players, we have to face the fact that we went out on the field and we lost games and we let people down. . . . A lot of people care now, and that's going to drive us in the future, it's going to drive us the next time around and we get to the World Cup. It will inspire us that this is the last thing we want to happen again."