By Mike Woitalla
About four years ago, then-head coach Thomas Rongen brought in a new assistant for the U.S. U-20 national team. The newcomer joined the players during a keepaway game. After practice, as the players were leaving the field, one was overheard saying, "That small coach sure can play."
It was 5-foot-7 Tab Ramos, who is now the head coach of the U.S. team competing in the U-20 World Cup in Turkey, where for the first time at a world championship a U.S. male team is being led by a coach who represented the USA at a World Cup.
Ramos played in three World Cups -- 1990, 1994 and 1998 -- as well as in the 1988 Olympics and the 1983 U-20 World Cup.
He was born in Uruguay and immigrated to the New Jersey with his family at age 11 and settled in Harrison. Finding a soccer hotbed in nearby Kearny, which spawned his 1990 World Cup teammates Tony Meola and John Harkes, helped cure his homesickness.
Ramos played with Harkes and Meola on a Thistle FC team coached by Harkes father, Jim, who created a 4-2-4 formation because both Ramos and John “wanted to be stars and play central midfield.”
Both ended up stars indeed, with Ramos getting drafted in 1984 by the New York Cosmos of the old NASL, but deciding instead to play college ball at North Carolina State. A wise choice as NASL shut down in 1985.
Ramos helped the USA reach the 1990 World Cup -- its first appearance at the finals since 1950. At the 1994 World Cup, Ramos -- a midfielder with a dazzling array of dribbling moves -- assisted on Earnie Stewart's winning goal in the 2-1 victory over Colombia, the USA's first World Cup triumph in 44 years.
When Ramos retired in 2002, he had played 81 times for the USA and club ball in Spain and Mexico, in addition to his seven years with the MLS's MetroStars.
He started coaching youth ball during his last years in MLS and upon his retirement Ramos and three partners bought an indoor multi-sports facility in Aberdeen, N.J., and rechristened it the Tab Ramos Sports Center. He also got his USSF B license, which he followed up with an A license.
In 2004, he founded the New Jersey youth club NJSA 04 with fellow former MetroStar Rob Johnson. In 2008, Ramos coached the NJSA Gunners to the U-14 U.S. Youth Soccer national title. It was the first national championship for a New Jersey club since the Union Lancers' McGuire Cup title 20 years earlier.
While most former pro stars who pursue coaching careers prefer to start at the higher levels, Ramos sees the benefits of starting at the grassroots.
“I think it’s incredibly valuable to learn the game from the beginning,” he said. “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.”
Ramos was named U.S. U-20 head coach in October 2011 after the U-20s failed to qualify for 2011 U-20 World Cup. He steered them back to the finals with a qualifying performance of four wins -- over Cuba, Canada, Haiti and Costa -- before losing the Concacaf championship final to host Mexico, 3-1, in overtime.
“I have really enjoyed coaching this group of players in this age group,” Ramos said on eve of the tournament in Turkey. “There are a lot of challenges to coaching this age group, and a lot of it is rewarding as well. We start this cycle with a lot of high school players and first-year college players and we end the cycle with about 90 percent professional players, so they go through that change throughout that year-and-half cycle.”
Asked about applying his own playing experience at a U-20 World Cup to coaching at one, Ramos said:
“As a player, we don’t learn as much as we should. The U-20s were a vital part of the rest of my career because that was good experience learning to compete on a world stage as a young player, and it’s the first taste of the international game at the highest level you can compete in at that point.
“Other than that, this has been an experience where I continue to learn every day. Coaching is a process that never really ends, and this has been a very rewarding cycle for us, and the way we play and the way we’ve implemented how we want our team to hold the ball and go forward.”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition.Woitalla's youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)