Members of the US soccer team celebrate Clint Dempsey's goal against Italy on Wednesday.
Members of the US soccer team celebrate Clint Dempsey's goal against Italy on Wednesday. REUTERS

At its best, the history of US soccer is a story of close but not quite.

The United States has always played second fiddle to powers from Europe and South America, and often even to their own neighbors to the south, Mexico.

Their best finish ever has been a quarterfinal appearance at the 2002 World Cup, but that qualifies as a Cinderella story of a run. They wouldn't have even made the round of 16 without a stunning win by South Korea on the final day of the round. Then they had the fortune of meeting Mexico in the first round of the knockout stage, which gave them confidence in facing a team they were familiar with.

But there are signs that the image and ambitions of American soccer are beginning to change.

With a 1-0 victory over Italy on Wednesday, the team overcame 78 years of futility against the Italians to score their first ever victory.

True, it was a friendly with nothing but pride on the line, but both the US and Italy fielded strong sides as the game was a tune up for the European Championships and the beginning of 2014 World Cup qualifying.

For the US team it was a legitimate win against excellent competition and one that they accomplished without their captain Landon Donovan who has been battling illness.

It is historic for us to beat a team of this caliber ... It was a great win, head coach Jurgen Klinsmann said after the game.

The fact that it was Klinsmann on the sidelines is another sign that US Soccer may be on the rise. He is the first truly accomplished coach the US team has had in years.

Klinsmann won a world cup for West Germany in 1990 and was one of the top strikers in Europe for nearly a decade.

He has also had success as a coach, guiding Germany to a third place finish in the 2006 World Cup before he stepped down as the head man. He was the odds on favorite to become the US coach then, but negotiations fell apart when he wanted more control over youth development than U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati wanted to give up.

Bob Bradley was named in his place and though he did win the 2007 Gold Cup and a second place finish at the Confederations Cup in 2009, the team stagnated, culminating in a less than stellar World Cup in South Africa.

Despite winning their group, the United States scored just four goals in their four games with none coming from the boot of a striker. Even their much celebrated Confederations Cup run was a mess. They lucked into the knockout stages on the final day, thanks to a 3-0 win by Brazil over Italy and though they shocked the Spaniards, they held a 2-0 lead in the final before a nervy and discombobulated second half gave Brazil a 3-2 win.

The hiring of Klinsmann was the first step on the path to potentially becoming a team that can challenge the top teams in the world on a regular basis. He has done that in the simplest possible way, but one that has eluded so many coaches before him - he actually schedules them.

Since Klinsmann came on board the US has faced Mexico, France and Slovenia, as well as Italy, all of which are top 30 teams in the world.

Clint Dempsey, who scored the lone US goal, has been another revelation for the United States. The 28 year-old, who plays his club ball for Fulham, is one of the first Americans to ever blossom into a star in the English Premier League.

To date he has 10 goals in the league this year, eighth most in the league. He looks to be on pace to eclipse his career high of 12 set last season.

There has never been an American-born player to achieve the level of success he has in a league as prestigious and full of talented players as the EPL.

It's a work in progress. I like to think that we're closing the gap and hopefully one day we can do something special, Dempsey told the Washington Post after the game.

Though the World Cup in Brazil is still a long way off, and a coach and a few elite players are not enough to stack against the veritable all star teams of countries like Spain, Uruguay, Germany or the home team Brazil, and many things will happen between now and then, the United States is taking steps in the right direction to have something special happen sooner rather than later.