Interview by Mike Woitalla
Under Coach Tab Ramos, the U.S. U-20s delivered one of the greatest tournament performances in U.S. national team history at the Concacaf U-20 Championship in Puebla, Mexico, earlier this year. The USA won four straight games, qualified for this summer’s U-20 World Cup, and in the final against Mexico -- winner of the U-17 World Cup and third-place finisher at the U-20 World Cup two years ago -- took the host to overtime before falling, 3-1. We spoke to Ramos about his team's experience in Mexico and his transtion from star player to coach.
SOCCER AMERICA: Did you have a favorite memory from the tournament?
TAB RAMOS: Not really. My favorite part of the whole trip was that the group was getting better as we left the tournament. Having played together for a few weeks, getting everyone got used to things the way we wanted to do them -- I think the team improved and was playing well at the end, which is what you always want. I was really happy with that.
SA: In the semifinal [a 2-0 win over Cuba] and final, eight of your starters in the field were Latinos. Is there any significance that we can draw from that?
TAB RAMOS: I said from the beginning, before we went, that I was looking for players who were comfortable with the ball. And who want the ball at all times. Our next step was to pick the players who had the best fitness, who fit that profile. And that’s how the team ended up this time.
If I’m around next cycle, I don’t know if there will end up being as many Latino players or not. Right now, if you look at our U-18 national team there’s not such a big percentage number of Latino players who are at the top of the game. During this cycle, it just happened that those were the players who fit the profile of the players that I wanted.
SA: Do you see some of these U-20s being on the full national team in the near future?
TAB RAMOS: Down the road … that’s certainly a call that Jurgen [Klinsmann] would have to make. But as everyone saw, there are some talented players on the team. When they play with confidence, they’re good players. I think that they played in Mexico the last game, in front of 50,000 people, in a final for a trophy and did well -- I think that’s something you have to look at as a real positive experience because it’s not just an average friendly game somewhere. For the guys who did well in that game, you certainly have to look at them as players who now have very good national team experience under their belt.
[Editor’s note: Mexico’s team included six players from its 2011 Under-17 World Cup championship team.]
SA: Where there players you were particularly impressed with?
TAB RAMOS: In that game [final against Mexico], I think Benji Joya played well. Will Trapp played well. Shane O’Neill played well in the back. Jose Villarreal played well up front. But it’s hard to single people out because it was such a great team effort. There were good pieces in every part of the field that really made the whole thing work. Cody Cropper in goal made the right saves at the right time to keep us in the game. Obviously their goalkeeper did as well.
I was very happy with the team. Certainly with Dillon Serna, a left-footed midfielder, playing right back in that game, and he did well. So the end we had good players on the field who were willing to do whatever it took for the team and I think maybe all of them have a future.
[Editor’s Note: Daniel Cuevas, a standout in earlier games, missed the final because of injury.]
SA: What was your basic strategy going into games?
TAB RAMOS: One of the things I tell the team is: “Look, we want to be aggressive. We want to play the game on the opposing team’s side of the field.”
That’s our goal every time. But we’re also prepared to weather the storm. There are times when you’re not playing well, or the other team has a special player you can’t stop for five or 10 minutes and you’re on your heels.
Things are never going to be smooth for 90 minutes. It’s very difficult for that to happen with any team.
I think you see with the team, even in the final, we pressed high and tried to win the game from the beginning to the last minute. We also went into the game knowing if we have to weather the storm, we pull into a 4-4-1-1 and this is how we do it. This is how we shift from side to side if we’re struggling. After that, you have to believe in the players on the field to get the job done, and sometimes that might not be good enough because another team is going to be better that day.
SA: The quarterfinal against Canada [a 4-2 U.S. win after 2-1 and 1-0 wins over Haiti and Costa Rica] was the game that would determine qualification for this summer’s U-20 World Cup in Turkey. It was a particularly high-pressure game because the USA failed to qualify for the last U-20 World Cup. How did you cope with the pressure?
TAB RAMOS: I felt good about the way we worked. We as a staff* talked to each other in the locker room and fortunately we had someone like Bob Gansler with us, who had experience at the highest level of the World Cup.
[Editor’s note: Gansler coached the USA at the 1990 World Cup and to a fourth-place finish at the 1989 U-20 World Cup.]
When he came up to me before the game in the locker room and shook my hand, and said to me: “You have these guys ready” -- that’s all I needed to hear. At that point the result didn’t matter because I knew that as a staff we had done a good job.
And now you have to wait and see what happens. And then you let the game play. The only things I did during the game was to make sure every time we scored we got back to midfield and get ready to get another. I didn’t want us to fall back into thinking now we have to start defending.
SA: What impact has the U.S. Soccer Development Academy had on the U-20 national team program?
TAB RAMOS: It plays a big role. We had players from the  Development Academy champions Pateadores and the runner-up FC Dallas. … I think it’s playing a vital role for the development of these players. [Before the Academy] after U-17 residency these guys would go back to playing club ball where you’re playing four or five games in a weekend and training once or twice a week. Now it’s different. Now it’s more professional.
[Editor’s Note: Of the 20 players on the qualifying tournament roster, 17 have ties to Academy clubs.]
SA: After your long playing career, you started coaching at the youth level with your club [NJSA 04] in New Jersey a decade ago. Is there anything in particular you do differently than when you first started coaching?
TAB RAMOS: Oh my God, I change things all the time. I’m not one to just stick to one thing. There’s a coach I always go back to -- Xabier Azkargorta. Some of the things he said have had a great influence on me and one was, “It all depends.”
To answer a question in soccer in terms of tactics or preparation for a game, you always have to rely on the fact that “it all depends.”
It depends on the opponent. It depends on what players I have available for any one particular game. We have to change things all the time.
As far as the coaching itself, I will tell you that one thing that doesn’t change for me is the fact that I like to have players on the field who want the ball, who are willing and realize they are going to make mistakes. But I want them to have the ball in any area of the field and I want them to be aggressive with the ball. That will never change with me.
Sometimes we’ll be successful and sometimes we’ll fail, because that’s normal.
SA: How much does being a successful player at the highest levels translate to coaching?
TAB RAMOS: I had been wanting to coach for quite a few years and I started at the bottom and went up, always thinking in the back of my head what people always say: “If you have been a player at a higher level and you have done well, normally you can’t become a good coach.” So I’ve been very conscious of the fact that maybe my chances might have been lower than someone else. Just because I heard that.
But now that I’ve been coaching a while and feel comfortable with it, I really feel like I have an advantage. The fact that I had been to the U-20 qualifiers before [as a player], the fact that I’d been on the national team for a long time, and that I played in a lot of places where the players I have would like to get to -- those are all advantages as long as your preparation for the game and your dedication to each game is good.
And I don’t take anything for granted.
SA: What advice did you give your players after the tournament?
TAB RAMOS: After we lost to Mexico, I told the players:
“This has been a great experience for us. Obviously, we wanted to win the game. We fell a little bit short. But you played that game in front of 50,000 people and you put yourself in that situation where you could win the game, which is all you can do, and we did that, we had our opportunities to win. This is a great experience for some of you guys -- hopefully all of you – when you get an opportunity to play in World Cup qualifiers down the road.
“But now this game means nothing if you can’t put yourself in the same environment that you had tonight. If you can’t put yourself in that environment everyday you go to practice. Now that you have that experience under your belt, you have to be thinking about wanting to get to that moment again and relive it everyday. That’s how I think you get better.”
* Staff: Ramos was assisted at the Concacaf U-20 Championship by Brian Bliss, goalkeeper coach Russell Payne, and Tom Dooley.