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U-20 Boss Tab Ramos Loves His Job, Extends Contract

U.S. Soccer extended Tab Ramos' contract last week and ASN spoke with the U-20 national team coach and youth technical director about player development, Major League Soccer, the senior team, and more. 
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
September 28, 2017
5:00 PM

LAST WEEK U.S. SOCCER announced that Tab Ramos had signed a contract extension that would have him continue his tenure as both the U-20 men's national team coach and the federation's youth technical director.

Under Ramos, U-20 national teams have advanced to the quarterfinals in the last two World Cups, including this past summer when, after claiming the CONCACAF title for the first time, the team performed well in the tournament without several of its top eligible players such as Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic.

Ramos, 51, will now return for his fourth cycle leading the team. American Soccer Now spoke with the former United States national team captain on Tuesday.

Brian Sciaretta for ASN: The last two cycles have been very productive for the U-20 team. Why return for a fourth cycle instead of moving on to different challenges?

Tab Ramos: I didn't want to be afraid to do better. Of course there are always going to be people who are not satisfied but I think we've done great the past few cycles and I want to continue to try to push the envelope. I am excited about the work we've been doing in many ways. I feel rewarded by all this work and all the work we are doing will all the youth national teams. To be honest, the answer would be that I'm happy.

ASN: In your fourth cycle you have a good idea of the process and how to evaluate a talent pool. How do you evaluate the incoming group of players? How does this group at its starting point compare with the beginning period of the last three cycles?

Ramos: I think it's right there with the last two cycles. When I first started I think one of the issues in 2011 was not so much maybe that all the talent wasn't there, it was the fact that at U.S. Soccer we weren't organized enough to have all the talent in one place and to know the talent. I think that has changed over the past four-to-five years. I think that helps a lot. It's hard to say how the players will develop over the next few years but I am comfortable saying that with this group we are going into the cycle with the same expectations for the last two groups. We believe we have good players who can do well in CONCACAF and do well at the World Cup.

ASN: We've seen the last two U-20 classes improve in terms of sending players to the national team or producing players who look like they could have big futures at the international level. What has changed for the better? What have you learned about the process?

Ramos: First of all we have to acknowledge the fact that soccer has improved so much over the past 10 years alone. That makes a huge difference. I think there is more talent just because there are a lot more good environments for players to train.

The next thing you notice over the past few cycles is that our team has gotten younger rather than older. I think that comes down to us being able to know all the players in our age group—not just the U-20 age group, but all the age groups. Now we can give opportunities to younger players.

When I picked Josh Sargent to go to the U-20 World Cup, I actually already decided on Josh in December of the year before. I decided that probably taking him to qualifying was not a good idea because that is more of a grind. But I thought that here is one of our great young players coming through who knows the game really well and I think going to the U-20 World Cup will be a great experience for him and we need to provide that. John Hackworth and I met and we already had a full plan for him.

These are kind of the things we weren't able to do six or seven years ago that now are a lot easier for us. All of those little things contribute to us being able to do better.

ASN: You invested a lot in recent years in the U-19 and U-18 national teams. It seems that has allowed you to cast a wider net and expand the youth player pool which gives players opportunities. Schalke spotted Weston McKennie, for instance, when he was with the U-19 team. How much of a return have you seen on that investment? Not only with helping you pick your U-20 team but also helping players with their careers?

Ramos: Weston is a perfect case. Here is a player who, I guess, wasn't in a great place when our U-17 residency program had him. Richie Williams had an opportunity to see him. At that point I guess he wasn't doing well. He sort of fell off. A lot of those players that go into the next [U-20] cycle from the U-17s, unless they made the U-20 team they really had no place to go. By creating a U-19 national team, now we have all those players who are not the top five or six from the U-17 national team still training together with a national team. That gave an opportunity for guys like Weston McKennie and Djordje Mihailovic—and a lot of the guys who are starting to come through that would have otherwise been lost from the national team perspective.

In Weston's case, who knows how it would have developed with him going to Schalke or if that would have happened at all? We don't know. We can't take credit for that because I think a good player is always a good player but it certainly helped a lot

ASN: When you have a U-20 team with a core group of players, do you have a specific benchmark as to what would be successful in terms of how many eventually join the full national team? The 2015 team already has Matt Miazga, Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola in the mix with Ethan Horvath maybe in a good spot for a backup goalkeeper job. Do you ever think that there is a target number you want to have become full internationals?

Ramos: At the end of the day, that is our goal for all of our youth national teams. How can we provide the best experiences to the players we believe will one day push for a spot on the senior national team?

A lot happens in between youth national teams. We don't necessarily develop players. We only get players for seven or eight days at a time, try to blend them together, and try to compete against other countries. Going into a cycle, I might see a player like Josh Sargent in January for our first camp of the U-20s and may not see him again for another year [until] qualifying because a club doesn't release him or whatever else. So what happens outside of where we are is a lot more important than what happens with us. All we can do is provide good experiences.

I can tell you, from the way I see players and the experience I now have from having seen so many cycles, who could potentially be the next one to go through. But then I don't see the player for a year and it's hard to tell how they do at their club.

We'd like to have as many [players become full national team contributors] as possible but there are only so many spots.  What you are also hoping for is that the players who made it from the last cycle are good enough to keep their position. There is one thing I always mention to the U-20 groups when I get them. We are not looking for the three-game national team player. We are looking for guys who are going to be committed, guys we believe are going to be good enough to be decade-long senior national team players. Those are the ones that are really important to us.

When I see somebody like Kellyn Acosta going through, that to me is the perfect player that makes sense because he played in the U-17 World Cup with us, he was in two U-20 World Cups with us. Here is a guy who was making room for himself all along. There is no question, for me, that Kellyn will be one of those decade-long senior national team players. So you're looking for those as you go along.

But then because Kellyn Acosta is a decade-long senior national team player, guess what? That leaves less room for Marky Delgado, or Tyler Adams, or all the players that come behind him. The fact that some players don't make it through isn't necessarily a failure for them.

If you happened to be behind Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller for a decade you weren't on the national team not because you weren't good enough. You might have been good enough for the last 100 years for the national team but just at that time you weren't good enough. That is just something you have to deal with.

ASN: Jonathan Gonzalez was with your U-20 team for World Cup qualifying and now is coming through in a major way with an outstanding Monterrey team. After turning 18 in May, he is an everyday starter over a full Mexican national team player. How excited are you for his development at U.S. Soccer and with him also eligible for Mexico, are you worried about him perhaps playing for Mexico? There are reports that Mexico might be interested in him.

Ramos: You could potentially always be worried. I am in contact with Jonathan probably every other week. I am in very close contact with him and Bruce has reached out to him a couple of times to let him know we're watching him and that he's an important player for us going into the future.

Obviously our senior national team is at a point where—I don't want to speak for Bruce but he has said this—we're not at a point to be trying new things. This is a time to qualify for the World Cup. So the younger players will be in the background but I do believe that once we qualify for the World Cup, the doors will open for a lot of the younger players. Looking into next year our senior national team is a bit on the older side. I think it's going to be important to have some fresh blood.

Over the next year, you don't know what could happen but Jonathan is certainly one of those guys who I believe Bruce will have under consideration.

ASN: When you look at MLS and the opportunities it gives to U-20 eligible players, are you satisfied? Obviously there are players like Tyler Adams and Djordje Mihailovic but do you think there needs to be more opportunities? As a U-20 coach, are you at all frustrated that more players are not getting regular minutes?

Ramos: No. Because at professional clubs, no one owes you anything. You have to earn a spot. So the fact that they leave the World Cup where they did great, and they go back to their clubs and they don't play, that falls squarely on the players and not on their coach. Yes, of course, when you have a coach in MLS you want to have a coach that can win games, win the championship, and recognize young talent. Of course coaches have to give young players the benefit of the doubt because otherwise we would never replace the older players. But in the end, you have to earn your spot. If you earn it, I believe coaches will give you the opportunity.

ASN: One of the players who did earn the opportunity was Tyler Adams, who starts every game for the Red Bulls and is probably the top teenager in the league right now. He was a big part of your 2017 U-20 team and is eligible for the 2019 U-20 team as well. We talked about Jonathan Gonzaelz's big breakthrough in Mexico, but Tyler is the big domestic breakthrough so far. Are you expecting big things from him for your new U-20 team?

Ramos: Look, I think Tyler Adams is a great young player. I am not sure he will fit into this U-20 national team. I mean, I would like to have him. But hopefully for Tyler Adams, there are bigger and better things waiting for him.

ASN: In 2014 we start to see the U-23 Olympic team start to begin training nearly two years out before qualifying for the 2016 Olympics. Can we expect the same this cycle with the U-23 Olympic team beginning its preparations next year in 2018?

Ramos: The answer to that is Yes. The time frame we don't know exactly but I would assume that by next summer we will have something for that specific 1997 age group.

ASN: The U-17 World Cup is coming up in a week. As the youth technical director, what are your thoughts on the U.S. team in India?

Ramos: I'll be in India. I am leaving on Tuesday and I'll be with the team. I am very excited about this group. I think it's very talented and very dynamic. I think if anything we may be struggling a bit on the defensive side but attacking-wise, we have great talent. I think we have to be happy about that because that is where it is more difficult to get talent.

ASN: Speaking of which, the last two U-20 cycles had top-level central defense production with Matt Miazga, Cameron Carter-Vickers, Erik Palmer-Brown, Justen Glad, and Tommy Redding. Is that an area of concern for you heading into the next U-20 class?

Ramos: The short answer would be Yes. That's a little bit more of a concern because in the first cycle we had, that is where we were the weakest. Walker Zimmerman wasn't really coming through yet. John Brooks wasn't released. We had to put Caleb Stanko in central defense although he was a central midfielder. We did the same with Shane O'Neill. But the last two cycles, we have had excellent centerbacks. It's going to be tough to match those. So we're going to try to score more goals than the other team [laughter].

ASN: The last few years have seen big breakthroughs for American teenagers. Christian Pulisic is the biggest case but he's not alone. Weston McKennie at Schalke, Jonathan Gonzalez at Monterrey, and also Josh Sargent for Werder Bremen and Erik Palmer-Brown for Manchester City. Domestically you have Adams and Justen Glad. Is this wave just an anomaly of a strong class or do you think it could become more of the norm?

Ramos: I think it is going to be a lot more common. If you look at the last two cycles I've had in particular, sometimes I can't even believe some of the players that couldn't make the team because they deserved to make the team but at the time there were other players who were doing better at that moment. I think that is a great thing because we have gone to the last two World Cups with two excellent teams and yet we can name another 15 players that didn't make it and put a great team together.

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