Unexpected national team return allows veteran to end U.S. career on a positive note
Tab Ramos did not even have his own bio in the 2000 U.S. Soccer media guide.
It seems a mistake now, but despite having 81 caps and almost 20 years of service to the federation, Ramos had not played a single U.S. match in 1999 and didn't appear to be on Bruce Arena's radar.
It was no mistake, however, that Ramos played all 90 minutes in Barbados, a game the guileful midfielder later declared his last in a national team jersey.
"This is a very tough decision for me because it's been so much fun being part of the development of international soccer in this country," Ramos said. "Watching it grow, and being part of that growth, has been an emotional and important experience for me.
"But it's the right time for me to do this. I really want to be able to spend more time with my wife and my two young children, and to concentrate on my club career. I'm glad I was able to finish playing with the national team while I was still healthy and able to contribute."
Before France '98, Ramos hinted that the end of his international career - which started with youth national team play in 1982 - was approaching. After that ill-fated World Cup it seemed certain that the loss to Iran would mark his last cap - especially since the injury demon was still lurking.
ARENA'S SURPRISE. But when Arena began preparing his roster for qualifying, he realized he could use some more players with experience in dealing with road qualifiers. Ramos was just beginning to regain his health with the MetroStars.
"I was surprised when [Arena] called me, but he said he needed me and I had never played for Bruce before," Ramos said. "Especially with the way we left the '98 team, I kind of wanted to leave on different terms than those."
Yet Arena was not asking Ramos, 34, to be the team's starting playmaker, its offensive hub, like he was for so many years. He needed Ramos' wisdom in practice and on the bench as much as he needed his slashing dribbles and finesse passes. Ramos gladly accepted the invitation on those terms.
"I never felt like a player-coach, but I didn't feel like I was being brought in because I was playing so great, that's for sure," Ramos said. "It's a lot different now because in the past, unfortunately for our national team, we depended on four or five guys for a long time.
"Now I believe we have a lot of good players. ... If you look at our national team eight years ago, you knew the lineup - everybody could name it."
And Ramos was always the lone player "everybody" hoped would break down the opponent's defense and create a goal. That was not his job against Barbados. Although he started at attacking midfielder, he allowed his counterpart, Earnie Stewart, to make the penetrating runs in and around the box. Ramos remained in the absolute center of the field, sidestepping reckless tackles so that the U.S. team could maintain possession.
The fear of injury seemed to factor into his decision to retire, understandable if you recall the serious head injury he received from Leonardo's elbow at the 1994 World Cup.
"The international game is always [more physical], so you just have to deal with it," Ramos said. "I wish it wasn't like that because I'd like to go on vacation for once without having to go to rehab."
A BONUS. Ramos emerged unscathed from the 4-0 victory and thrilled to have contributed again. He goes out with eight goals and tied for second in career assists with 14.
"For me, all along, it's really been a bonus - the whole thing," Ramos said. "I never expected to come back to the national team. I've been through some rough years the last couple years with injuries.
"If you were to ask me even eight months ago I was just going to be happy if I could play some games for the MetroStars because I only played five games the season before. ... to me coming here is a complete bonus, so that's kind of the way I took this game. I'm happy that I can play another big game."
Ramos says it's no secret that "I'm not the same player I was three years ago," but Arena and longtime friend and teammate Tony Meola disagree. Arena said he thought Ramos was as quick as he's ever seen him and Meola endorsed him wholeheartedly.
"He talks about how old he's getting all the time, but he still does thing that no one else in this country can do," Meola said. "He still can dribble by just about anybody and if he wants to ... It's still fun to see him twist people in knots, that's what he does best."
And it will still be on display in MLS.
by Soccer America associate editor Will Kuhns in Bridgetown, Barbados