The road to New Zealand started with a depth chart and an expansive list of players to evaluate. U.S. Soccer has spent the past few years working to integrate its programs and move the federation toward a place where players advance seamlessly from age group to age group and cycle to cycle. Those measures allowed U.S. Under-20 coach Tab Ramos to evaluate players in the Under-17 and Under-18 camps and start with a foundation created by Under-18 coach Javier Perez.
In those early stages, Ramos found a deeper and wider pool of players for the trip to Turkey two years ago. The emergence of MLS academy programs and the increasing number of qualified players in Mexico and Europe provided him with more options. Those underpinnings served as the starting point as he attempted to cobble together a squad capable of navigating through the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in January and preparing for the FIFA Under-20 World Cup poised to start later this month (live coverage on the FOX Sports family of networks).
Article continues below ...
Ramos faced a complicated task as he sorted through his options over the course of the cycle. FIFA does not force clubs to release players for youth international teams. Every matchday raised fresh issues about player availability and undermined the efforts to build consistency from camp to camp.
"In this one, to be honest, I just had a wide variety of good players in every different position," Ramos said during a round table on Thursday after revealing 20 of the 21 players on his World Cup roster. "It was much more difficult to select. But, at the same time, every time that we went into a new camp, certain players were not released, I took advantage of that. That was an opportunity for me."
It is an opening Ramos could not afford to ignore given the varying development rates of the players at his disposal. He spent the early stages of this cycle — the entire buildup to the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, in fact — identifying players and laying the foundations for his own depth chart. He estimates he called up 70-75 players during the process in a bid to compensate for players who were not available and delve as far as he could into the options at his disposal.
"Even though you have a year and a half of working, there’s no other way to do it because you can never get the same players together at the same time," Ramos said. "You’re going to have to deal with those challenges."
Those issues also make it particularly difficult to identify the core players within the squad. There are some familiar faces across those camps, but there are others who continue to emerge even after navigating through the qualifying process.
U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann grappled with the same issues ahead of the trip to Brazil last year, but Ramos wrestled with more fundamental concerns about first-team playing time and regular practice at a high level. In this age group, the circumstances aren’t always similar and the progress isn’t always uniform. There are steps forward for some players capable of demanding first-team minutes with their clubs, while others make due with reserve or youth team minutes and try to bridge the gap when they join up with the national team.
The lack of uniformity — the final roster includes college standouts, professional regulars, youth team players and one unattached defender currently training with a third division side in Spain — required Ramos to gauge progress through club contacts and federation scouts carefully and tinker accordingly over the past few months.
"As much as you want to say, you’ve qualified and it’s now about building the team, you’re still identifying," Ramos said. "Look at the last four months and how great the past four months have been with (Groningen defender) Desevio Payne popping out of nowhere and with (Real Salt Lake midfielder) Jordan Allen coming back from an injury and playing 90 minutes every game and Zach Pfeffer and Marky Delgado playing 90 minutes yesterday (in the Canadian Championship). We’re in an age group where the beginning of the cycle is where they are kind of professionals, a few of them. By the end of the cycle, you have full pros and some of them are playing full-time. You have to consider that."
All of those factors — plus the availability of foreign-based players for the tournament, including the inclusion of Utrecht forward Rubio Rubin and the exclusion of Reading forward Andrija Novakovich — entered the consideration as Ramos and his technical staff pondered the final 21-player roster.
Ramos evaluated his players one last time during recent friendlies against Qatar and Croatia and then rendered his decisions on Thursday. He named 11 players from the team that qualified in January, but he also omitted a few familiar faces — Columbus winger Romain Gall and Borussia Dortmund schemer Junior Flores, for example — to provide room for emerging players like Allen and Payne. He even saved one spot for Arsenal starlet Gedion Zelalem in case FIFA approves his bid to feature for the United States, though Pfeffer is on standby in case Zelalem does not receive clearance before the final roster deadline on May 15.
"As I told the players before we left (Austria last month), one thing that is really important is that — with this selection for this particular group — it’s not so much that I selected the best 20 or 21 players," Ramos said. "It’s that I selected the players who I believe are in the best form right now. That may change two months from now."
It is a nod of the shifting nature of this player pool and a reflection of the task at hand now. For this group of players, the focus shifts to the task at hand in New Zealand. The processes and the structures brought them to this point. It is now on them to reap the benefits and vindicate the choices made with their performances over the next few weeks.