U-20 World Cup Preparation

Tab Ramos Talks Players, Next Steps & New Zealand

With World Cup qualification secured, U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos now turns his full attention to this summer's competition in New Zealand. ASN's Brian Sciaretta spoke with the coach about what lies ahead.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
February 04, 2015
10:49 AM
THE UNITED STATES under-20 men's national team won't win any beauty prizes for the manner in which it qualified for this summer’s World Cup in New Zealand. But that's not the point: The team qualified.

American Soccer Now’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with U-20 coach Tab Ramos about the qualifying tournament, player selections and development, and what the next few months will bring.

Brian Sciaretta for ASN: What did it take to get through that qualifying tournament and what did you learn about your team from the qualifying campaign?

Tab Ramos: It was a little bit of an up and down because the challenge was on the mental side. For us, we approached the tournament wanting to be the first U-20 team to win the CONCACAF Championship. Obviously after two games, we had to change and refocus. So that was a little bit difficult. What I really like about the team is the fact that it’s one of those teams that is really able to work together and to focus on goals. At no time did we have players pulling in different directions. We were a united group from the beginning. We were a united group when we unfortunately tied Guatemala, unluckily tied Guatemala, and we were united when we lost to Panama.

The rest of the tournament, what we did was work together harder to make sure we were still able to qualify for the World Cup. That’s just something that this team has that not many teams have.

ASN: Qualifying proved difficult for this team but the World Cup will be much harder if the draw is anything close to what it was in 2013. What does this team need to do differently from qualifying, or what steps must it take to improve, if it is going to succeed in New Zealand?

Ramos: First, I believe that this team will play better once we get into a better environment with some good fields and all that. I think that this team is talented and certainly we need to work together to make sure that we're better in front of the goal. We struggled with that in this tournament. We led the tournament in shots on goal and we were pretty distant from the second team. We had 92 or 93 shots and Mexico had 76. Although you could say we had a lot of shots against Aruba in the 8-0 win, I think [Mexico] had a lot of shots against Cuba in their 9-1 win.

When you look at the offensive output this team had in the tournament in terms of creating opportunities, I was very happy with that. Defensively I thought that if we were not the best, then we were certainly one of the best in the tournament. Our players just played great defensively and Zack Steffen didn’t have a whole lot to do throughout the tournament—which is great for us. So we just have to build on that. Sometimes the chances just don’t go in and you have to keep going and continue to have confidence. I think our confidence in front of the goal is something that is going to be key for us.

ASN: In years past it has been tough for the U-20 head coach to get some European-based players released for this tournament. I know you weren’t able to get Rubio Rubin but you did get Emerson Hyndman. Overall, were you able to get most of the players you wanted?

Ramos: For the most part it wasn’t too bad. We couldn’t get Rubio. I think the difficult part for us is that we couldn’t get a final commitment on Boxi Yomba which I considered all the way until the end. We were also not 100% sure we could get a release for [Andrija] Novakovich if we wanted to consider him going in.

We thought we were going to be OK with Boxi. Boxi is at Atletico Madrid and once they denied him coming to Honduras in December when they really had no games he was playing in. He was actually a sub in the [U-19] Champions League game and didn’t play one minute. At that point I couldn’t name him to the roster because I didn’t want to risk not having him. With a 20-man roster, you have injuries and I didn’t want to risk in January having a player that probably wasn’t coming. At that point we decided to not even consider him.

The case was similar with Novakovich as well. You couldn’t take a chance on taking a player where in the end the club was going to say, “Now we’re going to have to take him back.”

I think one of the bigger issues for us leading into the tournament leading were injuries. Having guys like Zach Pfeffer injured right before; having Ben Spencer injured for months leading into qualifying; halving Marky Delgado injured; having Erik Palmer-Brown injured. We had quite a few situations we had to deal with. After the second game of the tournament, Kellyn Acosta went down. The depth of this group is what really got us through.

ASN: You have an interesting situation with a few players like Rubio Rubin, maybe Emerson Hyndman, and now perhaps Gedion Zelalem (if he gets approved by FIFA) where they might be in the mix for the full national team for this summer’s Gold Cup. Knowing they probably can’t play in both tournaments, has a decision been made yet as to whether or not U.S. Soccer is leaning to having them be U-20 players or full national team players?

Ramos: It's unlikely they can do both. The clubs are just not going to release a player for the entire summer. The player needs a vacation and a couple of weeks off to regroup and get strong. Our senior team has a game coming up against Panama this weekend. Once that game is over, over the next 7-10 days I will be meeting with Jurgen and with U.S. Soccer and that is a decision that will come from Jurgen as technical director as to what is going to be the priority for all the players. Then we take it from there.

In the end, I am here to try to provide a good environment for players to move up to the senior team. If we end up losing Rubio or Emerson or those type of players to the first team, I think that is a good thing because that is what you want from players.

ASN: At the beginning of the cycle, you start off with a huge number of players and then it is whittled down for qualifying. Now with qualifying over and preparations for the World Cup starting, the pool likely widens up again. How many players are on the radar right now?

Ramos: There is no question that we are still considering 40-45 players because you just have to. I gave all the players two great examples when we were leaving [Jamaica]. One being DeAndre Yedlin, who didn’t make the [2013] qualifying team last time and ended being a starter on our U-20 World Cup team and went to the senior World Cup. The other being Boyd Okwuonu who was our captain going into [2013] World Cup qualifying and ended up not making the World Cup team. Both were good players but sometimes going to an event like the World Cup literally depends on your form weeks leading into the World Cup.

As a coach it is my obligation to take guys who are in good form at that particular moment. That’s why at the last World Cup, somebody like Dillon Serna didn’t make the team because there was no question he was one of the better players that should have been there—had he been in good form.

ASN: On top of that, you have a player like Alonso Hernandez last cycle who you said you didn’t even know about until a month or so before the World Cup. He ended up making it. Could you see a surprise this cycle? Has there been anyone you noticed lately who has made your radar that was previously unknown?

Ramos: There is no one name in particular right now that I can think of that I can give you but what I can tell you is these guys are young. They are 19, 20. So there is a very good chance that over the next two months somebody pops up on their first team. And if they pop up and play for the first team, it is somebody we definitely have to consider because that means they are working hard and playing against men every day. That is something we need to consider because we need that type of talent to play with us.

At this point we have our net out there trying to gather information from all over the world on guys. There is no question there may be one or two surprises going into the World Cup that were probably just not thinking of right now or somebody who is currently on our depth chart who has not been doing all that great that now all of a sudden over the next few months turns it on and becomes a very important part of the team.

ASN: You brought a lot of professionals to Jamaica. It was the most professional squad ever for a U.S. U-20 qualifying team, by far. Are college players still even on the radar now? Or have you decided that this is going to be a professionally based team?

Ramos: I would say they are on the radar because at this point we don’t know what injuries may come up. I know the good players we have out there but unfortunately this was the first time when I almost had to apologize when I picked the team because there were good players out there that I did not pick who I think will be good professional players. I think it’s great that we have depth like that.

Obviously I want all the players to do well and I don’t want them to lose their confidence because somebody who is not in the best form right now going for this U-20 World Cup might be the best player three years from now.

So I want to make sure everybody continues to go in the right direction. I’m fully confident that we picked the right team for qualifying. So there is no concern there. But there were also guys who also deserved to go. I want to make sure everybody has that confidence and knows, “Hey, I could have gone too.” That is the truth. That is where we are with this group. We did not have that with the last group. I’m excited about that. That’s a good thing for us. But we will see what happens with everybody over the next few months.

I can tell you guys like Chase Gasper for UCLA, I had a private conversation with him, saying, “Look, you have a legitimate chance to make the team. You have to figure out in the spring how you’re going to get enough competitive games to put yourself in the running.” That is something that we have to look at and he has to look at.

ASN: The World Cup starts at the end of May so I imagine you will have a camp leading up to the tournament. But what is the schedule between now and then? How many times are you going to meet as you put together your World Cup team?

Ramos: Right now we are working on that. Our first camps will be on the FIFA dates on March 23rd through April 1st. We have an offer to play an international game in Europe at that point. We are contemplating doing that in southern Europe. There is also the possibility of going to London and being there for about 10 days in a training camp and possibly ending that with an international game. So there’re two possibilities in March.

I can tell you without making it official that there’s another camp in April that will be from the 18th through the 26th. In that camp—I can’t tell you where it is—we have two scheduled international games during that time. That is going to be in Europe as well against two teams that have already qualified for the World Cup. Then in May, although we have to get all the dates straight because of USL Pro and player releases, we are hoping to meet somewhere around the 14th or 15th of May and stay together through the World Cup.

ASN: Switching hats to your Youth Technical Director position, Olympic qualifying now starts in the fall and U-23 coach Andi Herzog might want to use some of your U-20 World Cup players. That doesn’t leave a lot of time for him to integrate these players into his team for qualifying. How big of a problem is that trying to orchestrate a quick turnaround for some of the U-20 players into the U-23 team?

Ramos: Over the next 10 days we have to plan out the rest of the year. You can’t just say at the last second, “The U-20 World Cup is over and you guys did really well. Who do we move up to the senior team? Who do we move up to the Olympic team?” That is going to have to be planned out a little bit with time and I think this is the right time to do it. The Olympic team is obviously very important to our program and we do have a head coach now—which is great. We can help him with the planning. I am sure Jurgen will be the one determining the priority of where the players go. That will make it easy for everybody.

ASN: You said in Jamaica the defense looked great. With Palmer-Brown getting healthy and Cameron Carter-Vickers impressing, those are exceptionally young players for the U-20 level in central defense where both are even eligible for the 2017 U-20 World Cup. Even with their talent, do you have any concerns over potentially having a defenders so young at the World Cup? It’s very rare to start two players at that position both playing up a cycle.

Ramos: It’s unusual but in the end, the team we played with at qualifying was a very young team. Three of our four defenders were at least a year younger. My job is to pick the best players we have. I think we’re very fortunate we have young players who are doing so well. Especially in that position because if anything, that’s the position on the field where you’re going to have your older guys because they’re bigger, they’re taller, they’re more experienced – all those things.

To have younger guys in that position says a lot for the quality of those players. I wouldn’t want to brush Matt Miazga aside but obviously he’s not in the conversation because he is this cycle. But Matt had a great tournament as well. Conor Donovan played well in the opportunities he had. It’s very unusual. Normally in youth national teams you’re scrambling to fill the position of center back. It’s definitely not the case right now with U.S. Soccer. I think right now we are at this point, I would say, loaded with center backs coming through the ranks—which is great for us.

ASN: It must make you excited looking at the next cycle to have this starting point in the backline.

Ramos: Look, in the end, you cannot count on that. A guy like Cameron Carter-Vickers may go up and play in the Olympics and not come back to the U-20s. That’s normal—same with Erik Palmer-Brown. If he comes with us, has a great World Cup, maybe in the next cycle he is not available to us. So this is the reality and if that is the case and those guys are not available to us, then we’ve done a good job in passing them on.

That’s how we have to look at it.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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