At last, the USA has a coach with vision. For the first time in my experience of U.S. national team coaches -- an experience that reaches back over 45 years -- I am looking at a coach, Tab Ramos, who has the vision to take in the full extent of the rather tangled American soccer scene, and who has the courage to respond to what he sees.
When Ramos set about building the USA’s team for the current under-20 World Cup, he applied criteria that he had learned as a player -- as a particularly skillful, ball-playing midfielder. Nothing esoteric or complicated -- he simply looked for players who were comfortable with the ball. But Ramos’s definition of “comfortable” is no doubt more stringent than most people’s -- he tightens it up with a knowing grin and adds, “I mean players who are not afraid of the ball,” then adds, in a mildly menacing tone, “I’ve played with guys who are afraid of the ball ...”
So Ramos ended up with a heavily Hispanic team. That will surprise -- and, no doubt, annoy -- only the reactionary, anti-Hispanic brigade that has been holding back the free development of the American game for decades.
Ramos is adamant -- he did not go looking for Hispanic players. He wanted skill on the ball, and he found it most consistently among the Hispanic players.
His ball-comfortable team came of age on March 3 this year, with a magnificent performance against Mexico in the Concacaf under-20 final. The game was lost, 3-1 in overtime, but an indelible, unanswerable statement was made. The USA had played splendid soccer in this game. This was not a performance based on strength or stamina or speed or tactics or that mysterious “determination to win” that, it seems, only American teams have.
This was an American team playing terrific soccer. An American team with eight Hispanics on the field. At the World Cup, the results were not there -- but did anyone expect them to be, in a group that also contained the favorite Spain, France (now one of the finalists) and Ghana, which has never been kind to the USA?
But the soccer was there. If inconsistently. What we got, against Spain, was a rather naive first half of ebullient soccer -- then a sterling second half played by a team that was anything but demoralized by the drubbing it had taken in the first half. Against France, the soccer was not so inspiring -- but the result, a 1-1 tie, was good. Unless you were Tab Ramos, who felt the team looked too ... well, too much like other U.S. teams from the past. Too ordinary might one say?
Ramos wants better than that. He has shown that his team can be better than that. He has proved to himself, and to the American soccer community, that the oft-derided rumors of a wealth of Hispanic talent in this country are not rumors. They are reality. And he has proved that a team, at long last incorporating this talent, can compete.
The case is closed. There is no more room for doubt. At all levels of the American game -- and this includes Jurgen Klinsmann and his German oriundi -- a much greater effort must be made to search out the real ball players ... and they will, at the present stage of U.S. development, be primarily Hispanic players.
What Ramos and his team achieved on March 3 was a breakthrough, an inevitable breakthrough, but one that has been inexcusably delayed by the combined forces of hostility, ignorance and an unwillingness to accept change. A breakthrough that showed a highly promising future for U.S. soccer.
I’m not underestimating the entrenched opposition that exists to the very idea of Hispanic soccer being important on the U.S. soccer map, never mind dominating it.
But the naysayers have had their time. Change is sweeping all around them, change they can no longer resist. Sadly, very, very sadly, so many of those naysayers are coaches. It is an appalling reflection on the American coaching community that the key issue of the American game -- the one trulyvital issue, especially at the youth level -- is rarely, if ever, discussed: how to get the Hispanic style working together with the traditionally more physical American game to produce a style that is truly representative of all the talent we have right now in this country, in this game.
On March 3, 2013, Tab Ramos and his under-20 team showed the way. A date to remember -- the day American soccer came of age, the day it cast off the burden of now out-dated traditions, the day we were shown the future. By the USA under-20 men's team, and by Tab Ramos, a young coach with the guts to trust his own inner soccer voices.