Jurgen Klinsmann played up the historical significance of the United States' shocking 1-0 victory over Italy in Genoa on Wednesday, but in reality the upset – which ended a 10-game, 78-year losing streak to the 2006 World Cup winner – provided a lesson that was even more valuable.
Many of the world's finest teams have traveled to Italy and been sent home with their tail between their legs. Yet the real triumph here was a justification of Klinsmann's brave approach in setting up international friendlies that take the USA out of its traditional comfort zone.
Taking on some of the best in the business on home soil is one thing. But by daring to venture to France, where the team suffered a 1-0 loss late last year, and now Italy, Klinsmann took a bold step. Such a move risked a potentially damaging defeat, one that could have attracted significant criticism from an American soccer public that is never particularly forgiving.
"It is historic for us to beat a team of this caliber," said Klinsmann as he stood beaming at the side of the field at the Stadio Comunale Luigi Ferraris. "It was a great win."
It would have been easy for the German to adopt a safer policy. He easily could have scheduled games against rivals closer to the U.S.'s own ability level and world ranking of just outside the top 30.
Instead, he tested his charges against elite opposition and facilitated the possibility of a night like this, one that struck nothing but joy into the heart of the American fan.
Sure, this was a friendly game and Italy was not at its best. And no one is foolish enough to suggest the USA is suddenly a world beater that will go to the 2014 World Cup as one of the favorites.
But what the victory did show is that the team is firmly moving in the right direction under Klinsmann's stewardship. The U.S. squad is gaining in confidence and understanding and cohesion with every passing game, and it does not need to be fearful of high-profile opponents anymore because, on its day, it has the tools and tenacity to snatch results against anyone.
For a repeat of this to happen, a few small slices of fortune and some resolute defending will be required, much as it was in Genoa. Yet it would be unfair to suggest that the USA didn't deserve this outcome, irrespective of the fact that Italy enjoyed far more possession. The visitors' goal-scoring chance, when it came after 55 minutes, could not have fallen to a better person.
Clint Dempsey is in outstanding form for English Premier League club Fulham and continues to be the heartbeat of this American team. Fiercely competitive and fired up throughout, Dempsey kept a cool head when receiving Jozy Altidore's pass and struck a low ball that wrongfooted Italian goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.
Italy attacked strongly in a bid to salvage something from the game but found itself unable to break down Klinsmann's defense, which looks markedly better now than in the early days of his reign. When he arrived as Bob Bradley's replacement last year, it was expected that Klinsmann's primary focus would be piecing together an efficient and fluid attacking machine, but solidifying matters at the back has arguably become his main priority.
Klinsmann received a string of positive performances to supplement that of the outstanding Dempsey. Michael Bradley, who now plays his club soccer in Italy with Chievo, appears to have grown in stature and benefitted from the technical nature of Serie A, while German-born Fabian Johnson and Danny Williams showed enough to suggest they have a bright national team future.
"It's a work in progress," Dempsey said. "We try to get there. For good spells, we were having to defend a lot, especially in the second half. When we got the ball, we did show quality. I think we just need to do a better job of being on the front foot, keeping the ball, playing with confidence. The more chances we create, the more goals we're going to get. I like to think that we're closing the gap and hopefully one day we can do something special."
That possibility – that "something special" – is the reason why Klinsmann was brought in. He and his legacy will be marked on what happens at the World Cup in Brazil in 27 months, but results like Wednesday's in Genoa allow American soccer fans to dream more clearly of a brighter time.