Juergen Klinsmann doesn't have to think long or hard to remember how he felt when the U.S. was eliminated during the group stage of the Olympic qualifying tournament three years ago.
"I was furious," he said. "So now we want to learn [from] that mistake."
One thing the experience taught him is that the U.S. needs to get all its national teams playing the same style, adhering to the same expectations and pursuing the same goals. So Klinsmann persuaded U.S. Soccer to expand his duties as coach of the senior squad by making him technical director of the entire national team program as well, giving him control over everything from coaching education and youth academies to grass-roots development.
And, of course, the Olympic team.
U.S. Soccer will get a good idea how much progress those changes have made Wednesday night, when its under-23 team — the Olympic team — meets reigning gold medalist Mexico at StubHub Center.
Sure, it's just an exhibition. But it's an important one, and not just because of the opponent. The game will be the first in the U.S. under new Coach Andreas Herzog, a longtime Klinsmann confidant and former national team assistant who was officially put in charge of the U-23 team in January. Last month, Herzog completed his first training camp as coach with a pair of friendlies in Europe, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina before losing to Denmark.
Klinsmann and Herzog have been on the same page since they were teammates at
"Teams perform best when everybody plays the same style and understands the system that needs to be played," said former national team star
"If you can teach kids that at a young age, I think it's very helpful."
That's why the roster Herzog called into camp last month included six players who have also trained with — and learned from — the senior national team this year, among them Stanford's Jordan Morris, 20, whose goal against Mexico last week made him the first college player to score for the senior national team in 22 years.
"It's important that we benefit from the experience and the quality and the leadership of the experienced guys," Klinsmann said.
"The quality is there to qualify for the Olympics."
But the Galaxy's Bruce Arena, the most successful coach in U.S. national team history, isn't so sure a one-size-fits-all approach will work here as well as it did in Germany, where Klinsmann reached deep into the youth teams to remake the national program and pave the way for last summer's World Cup title.
"It's a dream world if you think you're doing that," Arena said.
"It's one thing in Germany. Germany is a country that's very small. One time zone. One climate. One language. The United States is a different story."
Whether that means this story will have a different ending won't be known until October's Olympic qualifying tournament, in which the top two teams win automatic berths in next summer's Rio Games. Wednesday's game against the reigning Olympic champion could go a long way toward revealing the plot lines of that story though.
"Andy's been telling us in every training [session] that Klinsmann is watching us, and he wants us to play the system that the first team's playing," said defender Oscar Sorto, who plays for Arena with the Galaxy and will be in uniform Wednesday for Herzog's U-23 team. "I like it a lot. Because if I'm called up with the first team, I'll be used to the system and ready to go."
And that's really Klinsmann's aim. Getting to the Olympics is good and leaving with a gold medal is even better — just ask Mexico. But success at the national team level is the ultimate goal.
"What we did, I really believed it connected a lot of dots with all the youth teams," Klinsmann said. "We have to feel we're pulling in the right direction. It doesn't mean that we can guarantee results all the time. But we have the feeling that we are getting people on the same page."