Interview by Mike Woitalla
No other coach of a U.S. national team on the men's side had as illustrious career in the U.S. jersey as new U-20 boss Tab Ramos, who played in three World Cups, two Copa Americas, the Olympics and the U-20 World Cup. One of the most skillful players in U.S. history, his dribbling skills have arguably yet to be matched by an American player. Upon retiring in 2002, Ramos founded the New Jersey youth club NJSA 04. In 2008, he coached the NJSA 04 Gunners to the U-14 U.S. Youth Soccer national title. He served as assistant coach to previous U.S. U-20 boss Thomas Rongen.
SOCCER AMERICA: How valuable to your new position is your experience as a coach in grass-roots youth soccer?
TAB RAMOS: I think it’s incredibly valuable to learn the game from the beginning. From being on your knees and throwing the ball to 8-year-olds so they can hit a volley to helping Thomas [Rongen] coach the U-20 team. I think I was able to see everything in between. In the end, I think all the experiences will come in handy at different times.
SA: What's your overall impression of the player pool for the U-20s?
TAB RAMOS: Overall we have a good core of players who will be important at the start. Obviously this going to be a process of over a year to select what the main group is going to be that we’re going into [U-20 World Cup] qualifying with.
SA: What are some of the general characteristics of this age group? They’re adults but also just coming out of youth soccer …
TAB RAMOS: You have a wide range of experience among the different players. We have guys who have been overseas and have been playing, not necessarily in first division ball, but they have been playing pro for a couple of years.
You have guys who have never done it, who are now freshmen in college.
You can have seniors in high school. So you have wide range of talent to choose from. Obviously in the end you want to choose the most talented players who can play the way you’d like to play. But at the same time experience becomes a very important part of the selection process.
SA: U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director Claudio Reyna has talked about the national teams at all levels, from Jurgen Klinsmann’s senior team on down, playing similar styles and in a similar system. How does that affect your task?
TAB RAMOS: We discussed that a lot. I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to go with Jurgen [as assistant coach] on the last few trips and I sort of know what he’s looking for and the type of player he’s looking for.
One of the most important things with this particular team is to win games, to get us to the [U-20] World Cup and to do the best we can.
But at the same time, one of my jobs is to try to develop players so when they get to the senior team they can play the same way we want to play on the senior team.
SA: How would you describe what Klinsmann is looking for?
TAB RAMOS: I’m sure Jurgen would be able to explain that better. But I think it’s pretty clear that he likes the teams to play out of the back. He wants people who are confident on the ball and confident to be able to make a difference in the game.
He wants guys up front who are direct, who want to go for goal, who want to make an impact on the game.
Not that other people aren’t looking for these things, but I think sometimes we find a lot of coaches who may say that’s how they want to play, but when it comes time to play the game -- you find them playing with one forward on top all by himself.
I think this is something Jurgen has been trying to do different. He’s been trying get more people forward. He’s been trying to give confidence to players to make a difference.
And the youth national teams will try not to be any different.
SA: About half the players who were part of the last three U.S. World Cup squads had played in a U-20 World Cup. How valuable is that U-20 experience?
TAB RAMOS: Very. Basically it’s the same thing. Preparation is the same thing. You have the scouting component. You have the fitness component.
The players are a little younger, but particularly the U-20 national team should be able to prepare a player for going into the senior team and not miss a beat.
SA: What memories do you have from playing in the U-20 World Cup in 1983 in Mexico at age 16?
TAB RAMOS: I took an elbow to face and got a broken nose against Ivory Coast [a 1-0 U.S. win].
But I have great memories. We opened against a very good Uruguay and lost 3-2. We lost the last game against Poland [2-0].
It was my first experience of what to me was real soccer. Making it to the youth national team is very special. I hope all the players coming into camp feel the same way I did when I played.
(Tab Ramos, the new U.S. U-20 men’s national team coach is also President of New Jersey club NJSA 04, which he founded. He was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005 after a playing career for the USA that included three World Cups, two Copa Americas and the Olympics. He played club ball in Spain (Figueres & Real Betis) and Mexico (Tigres), in addition to his seven years with the MLS's MetroStars.)
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, coaches youth soccer for East Bay United in Oakland, Calif. His youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)