Tab Ramos Talks Pulisic, Player Pools, and Olympics
April 27, 2016
THERE IS A LOT GOING ON right now with U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams—some of it good, some not so good. The U-23 team failed to qualify for the 2016 Olympics and the U-17 did not perform well at last year's World Cup. On a more encouraging note, the American U-20 team looks strong and features many players on the verge of breaking through with top European clubs.
American Soccer Now spoke with U.S. U-20 head coach and youth technical director Tab Ramos on a wide range of topics, including: his current U-20 team, Christian Pulisic, the surge of young players in Europe, domestic player development, and the Olympic setback. The interview below has been lightly edited.
BRIAN SCIARETTA FOR ASN: After the first U-20 camp of the cycle last fall, you said you were disappointed. How have you seen things since then? Last month at the Dallas Cup, the team did not advance out of the group. Is the team coming together?
TAB RAMOS: Not advancing from the group in Dallas is not something we would be concerned with anyway because we played a different starting XI every game. You want to see everybody. This is why I like the Dallas Cup although their format is more for local club teams than for international teams. We bring a big roster because there’s a chance to have almost have two teams.
Once of the issues I’ve had up to this point, which will stop now, is that I have not had the chance to be there as much as I’ve wanted. I was not in Germany camp [in October]. I was able to have a big camp in January. For the Dallas Cup I was only there for the first game and then I left for the first team. Andi [Herzog] was with the Olympic team so Jurgen [Klinsmann]didn’t have a lot of help.
Going into the summer we are going to have a camp in the first week of July and then one in the last week of July/first week of August. Chances are those will be two separate sort of teams. From there we will be able to pick the core that will take us to qualifying.
Qualifying will be in Costa Rica at the end of February/beginning of March. That's not ideal because we have a difficult enough time getting players from Europe. We’re not going to have Christian Pulisic, Gedion Zelalem, or Cameron Carter-Vickers. Now there’s the added situation that MLS teams start their season around then. One thing MLS teams usually tell me is, “He’s not playing, but since it’s an international break, we need him to stay because he may play.” I don’t know how that is going to work out with this qualifying being so late. We never go to qualifying with our best team because we just can’t, but we need a bigger pool this year more than any other year.
We also have a U-19 team which Brad Friedel is coaching. It gives us the opportunity to almost have two teams going at once and seeing the full player pool. We’re going to need it this time.
ASN: What is your relationship with Friedel and U-18 head coach Omid Namazi? How much do you communicate?
RAMOS: Omid is a full-time assistant to the U-20s so he comes to all the camps. We’re always in touch. Just for my technical director role, I am in touch with Brad Friedel all the time. Brad has been a great addition to our program because he has such great experience and he has his European coaching education which helps him a lot. He can evaluate talent. He’s been at Tottenham with some great young players.
We’re basically trying to build two teams. Any time there is a call-up, we discuss that together. In July, I have two camps and he has one, we’re probably going to build those three teams together. We’re in synch in terms of giving players opportunities from the U-19s and trying to have the best U-20s available we can.
ASN: Will those July U-20 camps be held in California and Florida, as usual?
RAMOS: The first U-20 camp in July is going to be in Southern California. After that, we’re going to be on the East Coast and will play the Cosmos and Red Bulls II. I’m looking forward to bringing the team back to my home [the NY/NJ metro region]. This is my fifth year coaching the U-20s and we’ve never been there. I'm excited.
ASN: How do you compare this player pool with your first two U-20 teams?
RAMOS: At this point, if I were to compare the last two cycles to this one, I think we are ahead of where we were with the 2013 cycle but are probably behind the 2015 cycle. The 2015 team was a well-built team.
With the current cycle, there is a lot of talent. The positions are very much up for grabs all over the field. As far as a team, though, we’re behind the last cycle.
I like the maturity of the last cycle above anything else. That was a very mature cycle of kids who were focused on being professional players. I think this one can be like that as well. They’re on the younger side and we have a lot of college players. It’s a little bit different.
Having said that, from the midfield going forward I think we have a lot of talent in this group. It’s going to be us trying to decide if we want to play three forwards or two. Which forwards can do some of the work in the midfield too? So there is a lot of those “tweener” type players that could be a No. 10 or a forward or a midfielder. There’s a lot of those creative-type guys.
As we build toward the end of the cycle, I hope I have the problem of trying to fit in guys like Zelalem, Pulisic, Mukwelle Akale, Sebastian Saucedo, and all those guys. But we can’t think about that until we get through qualifying. That’s obviously going to be difficult.
ASN: The current group includes players affiliated with big clubs: Liverpool, Porto, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, Schalke. Borussia Dortmund, Manchester United, Villarreal, and Fiorentina. Does that make this a difference?
RAMOS: I think it’s obviously a great thing. Clubs of that magnitude don’t just take a chance on anybody. That fact is that we just left a cycle that included a lot of top players are in Europe. DeAndre Yedlin [in 2013], now Matt Miazga, Desevio Payne, Rubio Rubin, Zelalem, and Emerson Hyndman. These are all first-team players overseas. Then you look domestically and we also had first-team players like Jordan Allen and Wil Trapp. We are delivering first-team players. Now that we have more this cycle overseas, I think it’s a great sign.
I read things about U.S. Soccer that suggest we're not developing the players. One of the things you have to think about as a national team coach is you have to select the best players you have at that moment. Normally, if you have one player between 15-20 days a year, that’s kind of a lot. The development part becomes whether or not you can incorporate them into a team. It’s when they go back to their clubs that they flourish.
When we have them for a World Cup, that’s great. You can then really build a team.
The last cycle, I think we really delivered good defensive players. When we had all those guys [Miazga, Carter-Vickers, Payne, Kellyn Acosta, and Zack Stefffen] together, I don’t think we gave up a goal in the World Cup—which is really amazing. With this cycle, what we hopefully deliver is attacking talent. That’s why I’m very focused on qualifying. I really want to make sure these players get that experience of participating in a World Cup so we can show what we have.
ASN: Christian Pulisic just became the youngest player to score two Bundesliga goals. As the youth technical director, how big of a deal is this for U.S. Soccer? Is there any chance he will participate for your U-20 team or is it now all about the full national team for him?
RAMOS: Will he play for our U-20 national team? Chances are he probably will not. But this is why I always want to keep him in the conversation about our team: Every young player has ups and downs. Sometimes it's two steps forward and one step back.
It’s one of the things I’m always very careful about regarding our players. I think Zelalem is an amazing player too who is maybe going through the "down" of the “ups and downs.” Just a little bit. But I always want to keep him in the conversation because to us he’s very important.
The U-20 World Cup is next June. Maybe at that moment Christian in a place where he can help the U-20 team. Look, Paul Pogba played for France’s U-20 team when he was starting for Juventus.
I think it has a lot to do with what the senior national team coach has, what the schedule of the senior national team is, and how we view our program at the moment. If we feel Christian is probably not going to start with our senior team, is not going to get a lot of playing time over the next month, and it is important that we do well with the U-20s and to see how he can do on the world stage with the best players of that age…. So that is why I never eliminate players.
Carter-Vickers is in the same situation. Obviously you can’t compare but he’s at an amazing club and is at the footstep of the first team. Chances are Cameron will probably not play for us this whole cycle. That’s the reality. But we keep him in the picture because it motivates the rest of the players. I don’t want to lose my spot to him if I am Tommy Redding. He’s starting every week for Orlando City. I want Tommy to know that. I want those players to believe that. That’s important.
So with Pulisic I want to say probably not—but not absolutely not. We need to see where the program is at the time and where he is at the time.
ASN: What are you seeing from the college players this cycle? Also, how have the lower leagues—like the NASL and MLS reserve teams in the USL—impacted the quality of your player pool?
RAMOS: It’s good. We have more difficulty with the guys who are right on the verge of starting for an MLS team because they’re constantly on the bench and don’t get playing time either with the first team or the reserve team.
There's Danny Acosta [at Real Salt Lake], who I believe can possibly be the best No. 6 I’ve seen in U-20 cycles—or least the last three or four cycles. We had Wil Trapp here two cycles ago. That’s saying a lot. Danny is not with the first team. He’s playing mostly with the second team but he’s getting time. That’s a good example of somebody who is developing, getting USL minutes. That’s a good thing for us.
With the college guys, I’ve been having a lot of discussions with Sasho Cirovski at Maryland. I’m encouraged that college soccer continues to push for a split season. That gives them an opportunity to train a lot more. Hopefully down the road that also helps because some kids are not ready to go pro and they do go to college. That’s another avenue we are improving. So there are a lot of positives going for player development.
ASN: The U.S. U-23 team did not qualify for the Olympics for the second straight cycle. Many of these players were part of your 2013 and 2015 U.S. U-20 teams. How big of a setback was that for the program?
RAMOS: Obviously we wanted to qualify for the Olympics. Unfortunately we lost that game against Honduras and that’s the game where you look back and say, "That was the game." The team did really well in qualifying in every other game except for that one. Yes, you can say you lost the important one but they’re all important and the team did well.
You then go to Colombia and play an amazing game, by the way. It was one of the best away games I’ve seen any U.S. team play in South America—especially for a competition that counts. I’d have to go back to the senior team beating Argentina 3-0 in the 1995 Copa America for a result where we had as much significance in South America against a South American team. We could have gone up 2-0 on a couple of occasions.
Then we came home and...Colombia has great players. When you leave qualifying to a game with a team who has potentially better players, that difficult. Overall, I thought Andi did a good job. We unfortunately didn’t qualify.
The Olympics, to be honest, are not the World Cup. I know that it was a lost opportunity for us. I get it. I know that’s how we think at U.S. Soccer. We like to go to the Olympics every time. But the lost opportunity is not as big as a lot of people may think. At the end of the day, Olympic soccer is secondary tournament in the men’s sport.
ASN: U.S. Soccer invested more heavily in this U-23 team than in the past. It started the cycle over two years out to prepare for Olympic qualifying. Klinsmann even said that one of the top goals of the 2015 was going to be getting the U-23 team to Rio. Is that high level of preparation likely to continue in future Olympic cycles?
RAMOS: Could there be changes? Yes. You can always come up with something different. But the idea this time was a good one. We were as well prepared as we could have been. Can we tweek somethings to make it even better? Yes. Will we train the Olympic team less in the future? I think the answer will be no.
If you look back to what Caleb Porter had in 2012, he was in a tough situation. He had a team that was kind of put together last minute. It was at a time when U.S. Soccer was going through a lot of changes. Jurgen had just come in and Bob had just left. I think the Olympic team was in a little bit in limbo at the time. It was not properly prepared. This time I think we can say we were much better prepared. It didn’t work out.
Hopefully we’re even better prepared next time.