GENOA, Italy — American players applauded each other and their fans. Their supporters cheered loudly and proudly waved the red, white and blue.
Gaining a rare victory over a soccer power, the United States beat Italy 1-0 Wednesday night on Clint Dempsey's goal in the 55th minute for the Americans' first win over the Azzurri in 11 games over 78 years.
"It's a work in progress," Dempsey said. "I like to think that we're closing the gap and hopefully one day we can do something special."
A Texan who has become an increasingly important element of the American team, Dempsey put a right-footed shot from just inside the penalty area past an outstretched hand of goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon. Fabian Johnson had crossed to Jozy Altidore, who with his back to the goal against Italy's Andrea Barzagli touched the ball back toward the top of the area.
"I think we look like a top team in the sense where we have one chance and we're going to make it count," Altidore said. "I think it's a big step in the right direction."
After returning to the World Cup for the first time in 40 years in 1990 and advancing to the quarterfinals in 2002, the Americans have struggled to make additional progress. They were knocked out in the first round of the 2006 World Cup and the second round of the 2010 tournament, eliminated both times with defeats to Ghana. They wasted a two-goal lead against Mexico last June and lost 4-2 in the final of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, their regional championship.
That prompted the U.S. Soccer Federation to fire coach Bob Bradley in July and replace him with Jurgen Klinsmann, the former German national team star player and coach who has lived in California for more than a decade.
"It's historic for us beating a team of Italy's level," Klinsmann said. "If you beat Italy on their own soil then that means a lot. ... Obviously as a coach you're pleased because you see them progressing, you see young players stepping up and playing against these amazing, experienced Italian players who have won the World Cup and played big tournaments year in and year out. Obviously it was a big step for us."
Among the seven nations considered the world powers – Argentina, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain – it was just the ninth win for the United States to go along with 48 losses and six ties. The Americans had been 0-7-3 against Italy and had been outscored 32-4.
"We don't want to get carried away – it's a friendly," U.S. captain Carlos Bocanegra said. "But it definitely feels good and we'll be excited about this one, and hopefully it gives us more confidence going into the summer."
Dempsey scored his 25th goal in 83 international appearances. A native of Nacogdoches who turns 29 on March 9, Dempsey has had the most accomplished season by a U.S. attacking player in European soccer. With 16 goals this season for Fulham, he's become the American career scoring leader in England's Premier League with 43 goals.
"Initially, I was going to stay where I was and have him lay it back to me," Dempsey said. "I saw the guy was covering. So I tried to move to my right to try get open so he could play me the ball. He did a great job of holding it up, playing me, and I just tried to hit it low and hard, far post, and it went in.
Dempsey also had the best U.S. chance in the first half, with a free kick from about 28 yards that Buffon saved with a two-handed punch.
No. 8 Italy, a four-time world champion, dominated for stretches and outshot the U.S. 19-4. But the 31st-ranked Americans held as the Azzurri were called for offside nine times – to none for the U.S.
With retired baseball star Mike Piazza watching from the stands alongside former U.S. forward Brian McBride, the Americans won their fourth straight match – with their third consecutive shutout – to improve to 5-4-1 under Klinsmann.
U.S. goalkeeper Tim Howard had a big kick save on Alessandro Matri in the fifth minute. Italy nearly tied the score in injury time when Riccardo Montolivo's shot went wide of the post.
"We fight for respect every time we step on the field," American midfielder Michael Bradley said, "so every little bit helps."
Notes: Dempsey became just the fourth American to score against Italy, joining Buff Donelli (1934), John Harkes (1992) and Landon Donovan (2009). There was also an own goal in 2006. ... The U.S. has outscored opponents 8-7 under Klinsmann. ... With Timmy Chandler injured, Johnson played left back. ... The Americans wore new road jerseys in blue with white sleeves. ... Terrence Boyd made his U.S. debut, entering in the 79th minute. The 21-year-old forward has not played a first-team match for Borussia Dortmund.