FOX Soccer Exclusive
Future in good hands with Ramos
NEW YORK, NEW YORK
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At 46, Tab Ramos looks the same. The same as he did for the 12 years he spent artfully cushioning balls and flicking passes out of the United States midfield from 1988 to 2000. Donning a suit and tie in a Midtown boardroom, the tan hasn’t forsaken him, neither has the thick, dark hair; those same piercing eyes that orchestrated the United States offense for all those years, informing the soft feet of America’s first real playmaker.
Today, he orchestrates USA’s future. Ramos was named head coach of the Under-20 national team, in the summer of 2011 but not before he’d put himself through a rigorous education. “Coaching is a learning process,” Ramos says. “I’ve been going through my process.”
Some time after his retirement in 2002, Ramos bumped into globetrotting Spanish manager Xabier Azkargorta. “If you want to coach,” Azkargorta told him, “just remember you know nothing about soccer. You have to start over.” In spite of having played professionally in Spain, Mexico and the United States, the Uruguayan-born Ramos was advised to learn the coaching trade from the bottom up, starting with the earliest age groups.
“I think that’s what I’ve done,” he says. “I’ve coached from the youngest kids all the way up. It’s when you leave the game that you find out that you really don’t know much about it and you have to learn it.”
All that study is paramount. In theory, the Under-20s – rather than the Under-23 squad, which only assembles every four years for the Olympics – are the final staging ground for the senior United States men’s national team. Ramos is one of the men tasked with executing senior national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann’s vision for a modern and fluid soccer nation: which is another way to say that he, too, is expected to help bring about the revolution.
Following the fabled Toulon tournament in France, the U-20s will travel to Turkey for their World Cup, held from mid-June to mid-July. That’s the end game for this age group. And this time around, the biennial event takes on more relevance for the United States than ever.
The United States didn’t make it to the last U-20 World Cup or this fall’s U-17 World Cup. Or the 2012 Olympics. A shortage of knowhow among tomorrow’s senior national teamers threatens. Had the United States missed out on this tournament as well, yet more developing players would have missed out on career-shaping games. “It would be significant because the experience is just not there,” says Ramos. “How do I replace going into a World Cup for a player who is 20? There’s just no replacing that. If you miss that, that’s a big hole in your development.”
While ensuring that his sides make it to these pivotal tournaments, Ramos’s job is further complicated by the other aspects to it. Performance is only one piece of the puzzle. He also has to manage a depth chart of 65 prospects and expedite their graduation to the senior team. “You have to walk that line in this age group,” he says. “You have to think about players now and you have to think about players down the road.”
Players develop at different speeds, at different ages. A player with a high upside might currently lag behind a player with less promise. Yet there are games to be won. These are philosophical quandaries senior national team managers don’t have to solve. “This is a difficult age group because you have all kinds of things going on,” says Ramos. “It’s difficult to manage that.” Players are transitioning from high school to college. Or from high school or college to the pros. Players are taking first steps down the path of professionalism, or are still plotting out their routes, finding good opportunities and environments.
Still, Ramos has put together a gutsy bunch which faced down a more talented Mexican side in the final of the CONCACAF qualifiers in March and didn’t lose until extra time, overcoming the altitude, the warm weather and 40,000 hostile Mexico fans. Sure of self and style, they kept their composure, and kept passing the ball where most American delegations would have bunkered in and hoped for the best. “I look for players who are skillful and want the ball at their feet all the time,” says Ramos. And his team did indeed suggest what the United States senior team of the future might look like.
The U-20s are headlined by such names as Luis Joya, Juan Pablo Oceguedo, Daniel Cuevas, Jose Villareal, Luis Gil, Alonso Hernandez, Javan Torre and Daniel Garcia. You’ll doubtless spot a common denominator there. Upon his appointment, Klinsmann spoke of including more Hispanic-American players into the national team program, and this is manifesting itself most acutely at the U-20 level.
There are unmistakable advantages there. The aforementioned are sound technicians and many of them are emerging from Mexico’s superior professional academies. “The guys who play in Mexico adapt a lot better to different situations,” says Ramos. “They’re used to playing in the heat, they’re used to playing at altitude.” More importantly, they’re used to playing in raucous stadiums, all attributes particularly useful in CONCACAF play when the senior team ventures south for World Cup qualifiers.
Yet the competition for the Mexican-American player is heated. In recent years, Mexico has poached talent from Border States to the extent that two or three players in every age group of the Mexican national team program are now born on United States soil. This, too, comes under Ramos’s purview: recruitment of players with double passports. “It’s not like we’re going to Mexico to get Mexican-born players to come play for the United States; we’re just trying to keep our US-born players to play for us,” he says. “It’s difficult, Mexico comes in here and tries to take our players. That happens. We have to deal with that.”
In the fight for talent, showing well at the U-20 World Cup will help. Mexico won both the Olympics and the last U-17 World Cup. They placed third at the 2011 U-20 World Cup. These things don’t escape young players sitting on the fence.
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