Ramon Martin del Campo's Road to the U.S. U-23 Team
Born in Mexico but raised in San Diego, 21-year-old central defender Ramon Martin del Campo turned a scrimmage against the U.S. national team into a spot with the U.S. U-23s. Brooke Tunstall has his story.
August 05, 2014
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Ramon Martin del Campo was just another college soccer player with big-time dreams and a puncher’s chance to make them come true, an unheralded senior at a mid-major school who was going to need some luck just to get an invite to Major League Soccer's annual pre-draft combine.
Now, thanks to an amazing summer with the San Jose Earthquakes U-23 team in the amateur Premier Development League (PDL), he’s in the mix for the U.S. Under-23 national team, which is pushing to qualify for the 2016 Olympics. And he’s suddenly on the radar of multiple MLS teams.
So it goes for Martin del Campo, an anonymous central defender from the not-so-mighty University of California, Davis via the San Diego suburb of Chula Vista. Last week he was one of three current college players on the 19-man roster invited to the U-23 national team’s camp for tomorrow’s friendly with the Bahamas
It's quite the development for someone who never made a regional Olympic Development Team as a teenager or even made all-conference first or second team his first three seasons in college. The six-foot-three Martin del Campo possesses a prototypical center back’s build and a supposed impressive skillset to go with the size.
His rapid ascension onto the national soccer scene also underscores flaws in the scouting of elite prospects and the avenues Major League Soccer provides college players who need, and are ready, for professional soccer.
Why weren’t MLS and U.S. Soccer scouts unable to identify Martin del Campo until he turned 21, a relatively late age for elite talent to be spotted?
Why is he now likely forced to return to college soccer when all the powers that be with the U.S. national team system agree his professional development—and thus MLS and the U.S. national team—would benefit from his turning pro now?
And why can’t the team that did the legwork in identifying and evaluating Martin del Campo simply sign him to a contract when there is interest from both parties in doing so?
Make no mistake, the Earthquakes played a key role in Martin del Campo’s ascension.
“My coaches here at UC Davis told me that (San Jose) had scouted me my junior year," Martin del Campo told American Soccer Now. "And then I was home over the winter when I heard they were starting a PDL team and having tryouts the next day. I had my parents drive me up because I really wanted to be a part of this—to get the training and exposure to an MLS team.”
Earthquakes U-23 coach Dana Taylor is the former skipper at Oregon State University, where he mentored Robbie Findley, Alan Gordon, Jamaican international Ryan Johnson, and the top pick in the 2009 MLS SuperDraft, Danny Mwanga. Taylor has been around his share of college players who became good pros and he is effusive in his evaluation of Martin del Campo.
“When he came to the Quakes tryouts, the first thing I noticed immediately was his command of the people around him," Taylor said. "Very rare to have a player only entering his senior year of college be that much of a vocal leader. There are a lot of seasoned pro defenders that don’t have that kind of command back there.
“Ramon, for a center back, is gifted with his feet, very technical, doesn’t give the ball up, and is a very good passer. He reads the game well and is rarely caught out of position. And he has very good speed for a big guy. Quick in acceleration for a big guy and can chase down faster players in the open field."
That evaluation begs the question: How did no one at the higher levels of American soccer not notice this kid’s skill-set until now?
The only thing Taylor can figure is, “sometimes Ramon let his emotions get the better of him. He played with his heart but most of the time, especially at the higher levels, you need to play with your heart and head. And he’s figured that out.”
Even his exposure to the national team was more a product of good fortune and geography than his talent or thorough scouting by the U.S. Soccer Federation.
In late May, the day after Landon Donovan was dropped from the U.S. World Cup team, the Earthquakes U-23s scrimmaged the U.S. national team, which was training at nearby Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.
“It was crazy," Martin del Campo said. "I hardly knew any of my teammates names because we hadn’t been together that long. I’m pretty vocal in the back and instead of calling a player by name I was like, 'Hey, No. 4, push-up!' or whatever."
Martin del Campo guarded national team forwards Aaron Johansson, Chris Wondolowski, and Julian Green in the run of play. “And on corner kicks I marked Omar Gonzalez and [John] Brooks. I was nervous but not bad-nervous. More like Rocky Balboa-nervous, on your toes. I knew what I needed to do and I went and executed it.”
The Earthquakes U-23s tied the U.S. 1-1 in a 60-minute game, and among those on the sidelines were U.S. assistant coaches Andreas Herzog and Tab Ramos, who just happen to be leading the camp this week in Nassau.
“Ramon was very good in that game, to the point [where] the national team coaches took notice,” said Taylor. “Tab Ramos was the one who caught his eye. He did not get beat once.”
Martin del Campo’s strong performance continued all summer. He was named to the PDL’s 11-man All-League team and was one of its three finalists for young (21-and-under) player of the year. After the PDL season ended, the Quakes invited him to spend two weeks training with its first team.
“They told me I did excellent and I felt like I showed I belonged,” he said. “They were really happy with my leadership, really liked my footwork and work in the air, and that my game-play was just as fast as their players.”
Added Taylor: “The feedback I got (from the first-team technical staff) was he was looked at as a veteran player—like someone who had been there a while. He fit in.”
And what is San Jose’s reward for discovering and nurturing Martin del Campo? Not much.
Because he didn’t come through its academy system before leaving for college, under MLS rules he’s ineligible to be signed as a Homegrown Player. Plus, there’s no mechanism for MLS teams to sign underclassmen directly from college and MLS prevents underclassmen from declaring for the draft. In theory, the league could sign Martin del Campo this summer but then he’d be put through a waiver draft or lottery, and there’s no guarantee he’d end up in San Jose.
Through a team spokesperson, Earthquakes general manager John Doyle declined comment, though league sources told ASN the Quakes were exploring ways to keep Martin del Campo out of the draft. The team is not confident of doing so.
So the Earthquakes will likely have to wait until next year’s SuperDraft and hope Martin del Campo is available when its pick rolls around—although because of his inclusion with the U-23 national team, he’s now known by the scouts and coaches of 18 other MLS teams.
“You never know what other teams are looking for in the draft, positionally,” Taylor said, "but In my eyes he’s a can’t-miss first-round draft pick. He’s ready to make an impact for a long time.”
Despite the Earthquakes interest, Martin del Campo isn’t optimistic an MLS offer will suddenly materialize: “I’d sign if there was an offer right now," he said. "I don’t think it’s going to happen this summer."
"I’ve wanted to be a pro player since I put on my first pair of boots as a little kid, and I’ll do whatever it takes to get there. I’d rather sign now but I’m patient. I’m a man of faith and know that God has a plan for me. I’d love to go to the Earthquakes now, but if I have to go into the draft next year, so be it.
"I’ll go wherever I’m drafted to chase my dream. But I’m ready now.”
Born in Mexico to American parents of Mexican descent and then raised on the Mexico-U.S. border, Martin del Campo “feels as Mexican as I do American” and hasn't ruled out beginning his pro career south of the border.
“A dream of mine has always been to someday wear that yellow jersey of Club America in Estadio Azteca. I’m hearing my name is getting out there with some teams in Mexico now too. Maybe not America, but other teams. And (Club Tijuana) Xolos are eight miles from my house and have signed a lot of players from that area in the U.S.”
His national team invitation has made Martin del Campo philosophical about how far he’s come after being overlooked so long.
“When I was 12, I had a teammate get invited to tryout for [the Olympic Development Program] up in Fullerton. I went with him just to watch. Sat on the side of the field and just watched,” he said. “None of those kids ever made it to the national team but I stuck with it and now I’m the one who got the call.”
What do you think of Martin del Campo's path to the U.S. U-23 squad? Intrigued to see what he can do in the Bahamas? Share your thoughts below.
Brooke Tunstall is an American Soccer Now contributing editor and ASN 100 panelist. You can follow him on Twitter.