NEW YORK - One by one, tired and disappointed members of the U.S Women's World Cup team trudged off the bus and were greeted with cheers and waves from appreciative fans who didn't seem to mind a bit that they came up short of a championship.
About 24 hours after the Americans squandered a pair of late one-goal leads and were beaten in penalty kicks by Japan in the tournament's final game Sunday, they arrived from Germany to Newark, N.J., and heard the first rounds of applause Monday.
From there they took a police-escorted bus ride into Manhattan and encountered a few hundred fans who waited on the sidewalk in sweltering heat to welcome them back to friendly turf.
"Really humbling, and truthfully it's probably brought my spirits up more than anything else could have," Abby Wambach said. "I am so disappointed for my teammates, myself. I am so disappointed for our country because I really feel like we had it. It was so close.
"Coming home to this kind of reception is truly one of the best things that has ever happened."
It started before they even gathered their luggage at the airport. Fans met them there, and often stuffy security personnel posed for pictures instead of worrying about patdowns.
Many passers-by who encountered a crowd of reporters and television cameras in front of the team's New York hotel stuck around once they heard the squad that captured the nation's attention the past few weeks would soon be arriving.
"We're hoping it's not just bandwagon fans," goalkeeper Hope Solo said. "We're hoping that we gain some longevity, and I think we did. I am not surprised by it because I know that we women can play, we can fight. There is such a strong mental spirit among the team, and it's a special team. I am not surprised that people are jumping on the bandwagon.
"I am hoping I get out of my funk in a little bit because we have Olympic qualifications. I am taking it pretty hard right now. You've just got to take it one step at a time. That is what we do as athletes. You bounce back up and go at it again."
While many players will rejoin their Women's Professional Soccer teams, collectively this group is already looking ahead to the 2012 Olympics in London. While they still need to qualify for that tournament, they are expected to and will be looking to repeat their 2008 gold medal.
"This one will sting," Heather O'Reilly said. "I don't think we will ever forget this loss, but hopefully we have another chance. With the Olympics right around the corner, we're going to be back into our training regimen right away."
Nothing will take away all the hurt from Sunday's loss except a World Cup victory in four years.
"It's all how the media wants to spin it," Solo said. "Everyone talked about 2007 for me, World Cup experience and wanting redemption in 2011. But everyone failed to remember that we won the Olympic goal in '08. So when it comes to World Cups and Olympics, nobody seems to compare them.
"I want a World Cup trophy four years from now and I want an Olympic gold medal, but it's completely different."
Most of the players managed to smile some upon their arrival, even while talking about the bitter defeat.
Before they get back on the field, there will still be public appearances on tap as the excitement of the World Cup winds down. Solo, Wambach and Megan Rapinoe will make appearances on ABC News "Good Morning America" on Tuesday, and Solo and Wambach will be on "Late Show With David Letterman" at night.
"At some point we are going to all need some rest," Carli Lloyd said. "It's been pretty much three, four years of just going straight."
This was the last World Cup for 36-year-old team captain Christie Rampone, but she took it all in stride while toting her two young girls - Rylie, who is nearly 6 years old, and 16-month-old Reece, who was pacing up and down the sidewalk when she wasn't being held by her mom or Wambach.
Both girls proudly wore Stars and Stripes dresses.
"At the end of the day, we did better than the last World Cup," Lloyd said. "We made it to the finals after not having been there since '99. We have to keep things in perspective. We created a buzz back here. We lifted women's soccer around the country and even around the world.
"It was fun. It was just a sad ending, but at the end of the day we are second and that is a pretty big accomplishment."
They will likely realize that and appreciate it more as time goes on. For now, the wounds are still fresh, but sticking together as a team has helped somewhat in the first day following the loss.
"It's obviously been a big disappointment," Heather O'Reilly. "A lot of tears, a lot of laughter, telling stories of the last month together - one that we will never forget. This group is special. We will bounce back. We have shown our resilience this whole tournament. I think Americans know that we will bounce back."