ROME, JUNE 20 -- It was over. It had been 40 years coming and lasted 10 days. The Americans had given their best in the 1990 World Cup, the first appearance by a U.S. team in the finals since 1950. What was left today but to go to the beach?

Goalie Tony Meola, reserve keeper David Vanole and midfielders Bruce Murray, Chris Henderson and Neil Covone dipped into the blue-green waters off Tirrenia, the seacoast town where the U.S. team had trained deep in the woods.

Murray booted a soccer ball on the beach with two local young men. Meola was recognized almost immediately, and spoke with all who came up to him on the sand.

Cerulean blue and sunny, it was the kind of day an American player needed to brighten his spirits after a disappointing night against Austria in Florence. The 2-1 defeat left the U.S. 0-3 in the Cup finals. But none would forget the starry night they almost took Rome, losing by only 1-0 to Italy, the Cup co-favorite with West Germany.

"Unfortunately, we didn't win, but I thought we proved to ourselves and we proved to a lot of people that we belonged here," said Meola, who appeared to maintain his chances of signing a pro contract with a European team. He prefers to be in Italy, where the crowds like his ability, enthusiasm and ancestry.

"We're going to have to take a long, hard look at what it's going to take to get to the next level," said Murray, of Germantown, Md., who scored the U.S. goal against Austria. Murray also made the pass to Paul Caligiuri on the play in which Caligiuri scored the team's other goal of the three games, in the 5-1 opening loss to Czechoslovakia.

"The first game for us was a very embarrassing game," Murray said. "We felt we gave it our all, but we got hammered and it was difficult to deal with."

Bob Gansler, the U.S. coach, said that "confidence was lacking" in the opener. "There was too much doubt that entered into our minds and consequently into our game," he said. "The first game was a hard lesson, but it was something we had to go through."

Gansler said the team "did not come back against Austria at the same emotional high pitch" that it displayed against Italy.

In Rome, the Americans appeared to raise their level of play in a situation that demanded it -- playing in the packed Olympic Stadium against the home country. But they did not perform nearly as well in the lower-key atmosphere of Florence, where the stadium and crowds were smaller and the drama less.

"You don't want to say it's inevitable," Gansler said, "but in a way it was. . . . I felt we came pretty close to what could be expected. I really felt we could get a point {with a tie} here and if we got lucky we could get two {with a victory or two ties}. We had to have a little more good fortune than we did."

Caligiuri and John Harkes stayed around Tirrenia too, packing up. But 15 players left almost immediately. Gansler wished they could have taken something more tangible with them. But he defended his defensive-oriented style of play as the only way to approach Cup-level soccer.

"You have to find ways to win," he said. "I'm very cognizant of the fact that everyone likes attractive soccer. But you also need success. You have to give players the feeling they can succeed. You must be successful. Otherwise, people will ignore you in droves."

George Mason Coach Gordon Bradley, who was the U.S. national team coach in 1973, saw positive signs. "We're not yet at the level of the Brazils and Italys," he said. "However, we are closer to some of the middle-of-the-line teams and we have grown up tremendously through this experience.

"If we continue to play international games on a regular basis, together with these players playing at the highest league level, we will be much further down the road in preparation for 1994. They proved there is a place for the American player in world soccer."

The soccer future of several American players is promising. Only three are older than 25, so many will try to make the '94 team. Several should make the U.S. team for the 1992 Olympics.

Meola, Caligiuri, midfielder Tab Ramos and defender John Doyle are considered the best possibilities to sign pro contracts with foreign clubs.

Peter Vermes, who came close to scoring what would have been the tying goal against Italy, and forward Chris Sullivan already have professional contracts with clubs in the Netherlands and Hungary, respectively.

Defender Marcelo Balboa, Henderson and third goalkeeper Kasey Keller plan to return to college.

Most of the team will be back together for a game June 28 against East Germany in Milwaukee, where Gansler lives. After that, the Americans will compete in a Marlboro Cup event at Giants Stadium Aug. 10 and 12 against foreign club teams.

But no matter how far their soccer travels take them in the next few years, most of the players like the idea of playing on the next World Cup team when the finals will be held in the United States. But, as Meola suggested, that's a while yet.

"Naturally," he said, "I would like to play for my country in 1994. I'm young enough -- I'm 21 -- where my age would allow it. But you never know when a young stud will come along and take your job."

Special correspondent Steven Goff in Washington contributed to this report.