By Simon Evans
COLUMBUS, Ohio (Reuters) - The United States celebrated qualification for the World Cup finals with a 2-0 victory over Mexico on Tuesday but the true test of Juergen Klinsmann's team will not come until Brazil itself.
As champagne flowed and official tee-shirts declaring ‘Qualified' were snapped up by fans partying around Crew Stadium, there was a quiet word of caution from one of the team's hardened realists.
"You're happy. You're going to enjoy it. People are going to have a few beers and stuff like that but the goal is to do well in Brazil," said forward Clint Dempsey.
Indeed, the days when Americans were delighted merely to get a ticket to the party are long over and the growth of the sport in the States brings newer and loftier expectations.
"You want to qualify for a World Cup and you want to do well," Dempsey said.
"I've played in two World Cups. One I didn't advance out of the group stage and the other we won the group but lost the next game. It would be nice to do something special in a World Cup."
The U.S. failed to qualify for any World Cup between 1954 and 1986 but have been ever present from 1990 with their best performance a quarter-final spot in 2002 in Japan and South Korea.
In South Africa three years ago, under Klinsmann's predecessor Bob Bradley, a workmanlike U.S. side scraped out of the group stage ahead of Slovenia and Algeria and lost to Ghana in the last 16.
Since taking over in 2011, former Germany coach Klinsmann has made numerous changes behind the scenes, including more intensive training sessions, a focus on nutrition and diet, and a scouting network that seeks out qualified American players all over the world.
Klinsmann has brought through a host of new players, both from the domestic Major League Soccer and from European club football, and he has expanded the size of his pool - 39 players started at least one match this year.
"They know they have guys behind them in every position so they know if they don't give everything they have the next one comes in and steals his spot. Therefore there is more competition than before," Klinsmann said.
The big question is whether all those improvements are going to be visible in the end product on the field in Brazil next year.
Bradley's teams were noted for a never-say-die attitude and a straightforward, hard-working approach to the game but those qualities did not quite compensate for the lack of creativity and imagination of his team in South Africa.
When he was appointed, Klinsmann talked a lot about a new style but the changes on that level have been moderate and gradual as the practical business of getting out of the CONCACAF qualifying process took precedence over tactical experiments.
But the American midfielders, particularly the outstanding Michael Bradley who is the son of the former coach, certainly look more comfortable on the ball than in the past, more willing to keep possession patiently and look for gaps to exploit.
Klinsmann believes his team are, at least, on their way towards the kind of approach he wants to see.
"I think that step by step we are getting closer to taking the game to the opponents. We are not sitting back and reacting to what happens, we want to take it into their half," he said.
"I think we made big progress in terms of technical variation, in terms of commitment both defensively and offensively," he added.
By June next year, however, the only progress that will matter is whether the Americans go from being plucky outsiders to genuine contenders in the latter stages of the tournament.
(Editing by Ed Osmond)