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ASN Exclusive

Ramos discusses state of the U.S. U-20 team and looks ahead to Poland

Tab Ramos has an impressive resume leading the U.S. U-20 team. He has won the last two CONCACAF tournaments and has two straight World Cup quarterfinal appearances. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with Ramos about the current U-20 team and the upcoming World Cup. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 16, 2019
3:20 PM
THE UNITED STATES U-20 team recently completed its January camp in Florida and it marked yet another important part of the team’s development ahead of this summer’s World Cup. For head coach Tab Ramos, difficult decisions await him in putting together his roster for Poland.

Only two months ago, the U.S. U-20 won CONCACAF for the second straight cycle to qualify for its fourth straight World Cup. What is even more impressive is that roster did not include many of the top American players of that age group. In the four months between now and the start of the World Cup, the competition to make the final roster will be intense in what is a very strong age group of American players.

ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke at length with Ramos about the state of the U.S. U-20 team following January camp and looked forward to what lies ahead in the upcoming months.

BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: How would you assess this past January camp? Did it leave you with a better understanding of where many of your players stand on your depth chart?

RAMOS: I thought the camp was pretty good. There is only so much we can push the players during camps in January because most of them are coming from either vacation or training on their own. I can only think of Ayo as the only player who played 90 minutes in the last game we played. But most of the players we limited to 45-60 minutes in most of the games. But I was really happy with what I saw.

ASN: Did anyone particularly stand out to you or significantly improve his standing within the squad? You had a lot of players who were not here from qualifying.

RAMOS: I think it was great to see Nick Taitague at a good level physically and mentally. He's a big time player. Hopefully he can stay healthy. I will be going over to Schalke for a meeting. Hopefully he can come to the World Cup. He would be a big boost to the team.

Other than Nick, I thought Chris Durkin had a really good camp and so did Aboubacar Keita. He did really well at the centerback position. So did Griffin Dorsey - he had a nice camp. A lot guys did.

But that doesn't include guys like Ayo Akinola, Paxton Pomykal, Brandon Servania, Justin Rennicks - I don't mention them because they did just as well. They're good players and they performed well. But those I mentioned before were the surprises who I thought were at a good level where they can help the team down the road.

ASN: One of the most intriguing call-ups to the camp was Jesus Ferreira who was on the roster despite not being a citizen yet. He had been known in youth circles for awhile but now you were at a point where you were comfortable calling him up. How did he perform in his first camp and also, where does the citizenship process stand with him and also the likelihood for a FIFA residency waiver to play for the United States?

RAMOS: It is my understanding that citizenship will be the easy part. Then after that, it will be whether or not we have enough time to get the clearance from FIFA to play for us if we did want him for the World Cup.

But what I can tell you is that he played his way into being competitive for a position on the team. He is a good player. He reads the game really well. He gets into all the right positions between lines. He is very quick to play. He puts in a good effort defensively and that helps us a lot because obviously we high press all the time.

Although he is a new player, I didn't talk to him a lot but did wait five or six days into camp before I had a really good conversation with him. I basically wanted to make sure he felt comfortable with how we play and what we're doing. He indicated he felt really comfortable and he enjoyed it. I think we are in a good place with him.

I am not sure if we are a little bit late in the cycle to bring him along but he certainly put himself in position to compete for a spot.

ASN: The hot button topic with this year's U-20 team is that three age-eligible players are playing significantly with the full national team. Have you taken Josh Sargent, Tim Weah, and Tyler Adams off the table in terms of playing for this team?

RAMOS: To me, I don't think it's off the table. It's a discussion to have with Gregg [Berhalter] and how he feels about the young players coming to the U-20 World Cup or not. It has nothing to do if whether the players are ready for the senior team or not, because I think a lot of them are - including possibly Alex Mendez in the next few months. I don't know.

What I do know, and this is a decision that Gregg [Berhalter] has to make, on whether it's more helpful for the players to go to the U-20 World Cup and play rather than go with the senior team and not play. That is a decision that is going to come from above me and certainly I've managed that before in the past. It's no problem from my end whatever decision is made. I always go to the next guy down the line and we always do the best we can.

ASN: An interesting debate is going on right now about MLS players getting released for the U-20 World Cup. I know that historically it has been an issue with players based abroad. But when you have some players like Mark McKenzie getting 2000 mintues a season with Philadelphia, there could be a growing reluctance with MLS teams to release starters. How are you managing this new dynamic?

RAMOS: I think it's partly the philosophy of the league... I dont think it's the case for all MLS teams. I think it's probably a good idea for MLS to have a philosophy on what's important. It's okay with me but I just need to have an across the board answer because in Mexico, for example, it's known that anyone who gets called into the U-20s, they go. It's not up to me to decide what the value of the U-20's is. That's up to them to decide.

I know all games are important but is the value of to a player playing in the first 10 days in June against the best players of that age group worldwide more than one or two regular season games? That's not up to me to decide but that's what we are comparing. But when I look at other countries and I see Pogba was released, that's the case. You look and see guys like Messi and Aguero before that who have won things, and you develop a culture for winning.

One of the great things I've heard Gregg say in his interviews is that he is trying to develop a culture for winning. That it's about winning and the senior national team camp is now competitive and everything matters. I think he is getting two generations of players now who are sort of used to that from the youth national teams - because we want to win too.

MLS has to decide what is best for MLS and its players and to how the public and fans see their players. By coming to the national team, it is no secret you become a nationally known player whereas if you remain at your club, sometimes you're just a young player at your club that only the local fans know. Also, with the fact that there are now more foreign people working in MLS clubs as coaches or technical directors, one of the things I've heard is that in France, Germany if players are called into the U-20s but are playing with the first team, they aren't released. But if you go across the board and put MLS in comparison to the German Bundesliga and Ligue 1, then ok but the players that aren't getting released are probably going to Champions League games. I don't think it's apples to apples.

ASN: Two years ago after you won CONCACAF for the first time, you decided to look younger heading into the World Cup when you determined that Josh Sargent was ready for the U-20 World Cup. With some young players develping so quickly and with such a wider than usual gap between CONCACAF and the U-20 World Cup, are you begining to look at the young age groups to see if anyone is developing quickly to the point of where they are ready to possibly help your U-20 team in Poland?

RAMOS: We are looking at all of the players. If you look at George Bello, for example, I believe he could potentially play at the U-20s. That's not an issue. I believe if we bring him in, he can play for us. But we also have guys who are there who are also doing a good job [at left back].

Chris Gloster, I think, is a great left back. He deserves to play and is just as good as anyone else. Matt Real is an excellent left back. He is competing for that spot. Is it fair to bring George Bello and maybe not play him? I think he is maybe better staying with his own age group, playing, and making a difference - going forward, getting crosses in, maybe scoring from that position. We may need that more.

The short answer to what you ask is yes. We're always looking for the best players. [Gianluca] Busio would be on the list. [Gio] Reyna would be on the list. All those guys who are the best prospects in all those different age groups would be on the list. But in the end, if we have too many in certain positions, chances are we are going to go with the older guys who are doing a good job. I still have Alex Mendez, Frankie Amaya, Paxton Pomykal, Andrew Carleton, Nick Taitague, Ulysses Llanez, Ayo Akinola, and then I have the forwards whether its Rennicks, Soto, you have a lot of attacking options.

Already, some of those guys, if I listed all the guys that are currently on the team, some of them aren't going to make it because I don't have enough spots.

ASN: You mentioned Andrew Carleton. It seems like it has been tough to get him involved with the team for a variety of reasons. Are you still looking to try to get him involved? Is he in the picture?

RAMOS: Of course. It's open for everybody. I think Andrew now has to play. I don't think Andrew Carleton has played more than [a few] games the past six months. That's a big disadvantage to him.

We had guys who went to qualifying who played eight games in four weeks. That's just qualifying and now they have another camp under their belt. The guys who went back to Europe have been playing every week - whether that's Gloster, Soto, Taitague, or even Sargent or Weah. The door is open to every player but he keeps falling behind. As he starts the preseason with Atlanta, if he does really well in the spring, yes, of course he's back in the picture. No question.

ASN: If the next camp is in March the preliminary 35 player roster is probably due right after that, things are getting tight with time. Is there still time for a late emerging player? There has been late emerging players seemingly every cycle for you - like Alonso Hernandez in 2013, Desevio Payne in 2015, Josh Sargent or Derrick Jones in 2017. Or do you think you are comfortable with the players currently in your pool? What would it take for a late emerger to make this team?

RAMOS: I think after we completed this camp, I think the player pool becomes a little bit smaller. There is no question there is always room but the room is going to be for a starter on a first team. Let's take for example Desevio Payne from a few cycles ago. He was starting for the first team [at Groningen] in a top league. Of course we have room for a player like that.

If it is a player that just breaks into the first team and is just now on the bench for three weeks before we go to the World Cup, I am not sure that takes the spot away from someone who has been on the team and who is currently playing. But the door is always open and I think that's my job to pick the players who are in good form. Now that this January camp is over, it will depend on how players do on their particular team. If we don't know them well yet, it's purely going to depend on how much playing time they are getting on their first team at their club.

ASN: Speaking of U-20 eligible players starting to get first team minutes lately. U.S. U-18 forward Charlie Kelman made his pro debut for Southend United in League One and scored a wondergoal. This past week he signed a professional contract. What are your thoughts on his situation in the third tier of England and his impressive debut? Is that someone you now start to keep an eye on?

RAMOS: Of course. I did see it. I think that was an amazing goal - not just the fact he scored the goal but that he thought about it at the time. That is quick thinking. Not everybody is thinking that the keeper might be out. I really like that. Also, Charlie is a 2001 so he is also a potential next-cycle U-20 player. He is certainly in the picture as well.

ASN: Did you see any improvement in 2018 with U-20 eligible players getting minutes in MLS?

RAMOS: I think there was a lot of improvement, especially on the defensive side where the defensive players got more time. I personally would like to see a lot more of the attacking players. I think it is great when Atlanta can go out and spend $15 million on players like Barco, for example. But I do believe we have players like Alex Mendez and Paxton Pomykal who are worth just as much. That's my feeling. I see these players everyday. These are good players.

If you told me you went to watch Alex Mendez play in qualifying, and after watching him somebody told you he was from Argentina and he played for San Lorenzo, guess what? Now he's worth $20 million. But because he's American, now he's just another kid - which he's not. That's what I am hoping for down the road. That some of our creative American players are also given the benefit of the doubt on the teams.

ASN: You've now had the chance to see a lot of young players from USL teams - especially since it began to allow MLS reserve teams to compete in the league. How prepared are you finding players who play most of their minutes in USL to be with high-level U-20 teams?

RAMOS: I think it's great. I really enjoy watching USL and I think it's a great league for our young players. It's certainly much better than sitting on the bench for a first team and then getting your 10 or 15 minutes. When I am home, I go to Red Bulls II games and Bethlehem Steel games. I like to watch USL games because I think there is a lot of value there for our young players.

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