By Paul Gardner
The 2011 appointment of Tab Ramos as the coach of the U.S. U-20 national team seems to me the most important move that has ever been made within the musty and -- before this -- largely unimaginative coaching world of the U.S. Soccer Federation.
I shall have plenty to say later about the qualities that make Ramos an exceptional coach, a different coach -- and why that difference is so vitally important to the future of soccer in this country.
But we’ll start with Tab Ramos answering some of my questions about his youth and his playing days, when important aspects of his view of the game were being formed.
PAUL GARDNER: Tab, your father was a youth coach, but he told me that he never taught you anything, that all your talent seemed like a gift that you had. How did things start?
TAB RAMOS: Growing up in Uruguay -- in Montevideo -- as far back as I can remember, it seems like I was always playing soccer. In the backyard, on the streets, and on my club team. Just loved the sport and was always thinking about being a professional player one day.
Looking back, maybe I can make out some influences that were there. This was Uruguay, you learned to be a winner, it was special because we’d been World Cup champions twice, Olympic champions twice and there was this feeling that nothing but being champions was ever acceptable. As a kid, in the 1970s, that was the mentality I absorbed, an aggressive, champion’s mentality, not being intimidated by any one. It was passed down from generation to generation.
PG: Any coaching?
TAB RAMOS: Not really. At my club there were never any specific limitations on touches, or on dribbling. The one thing that was rewarded, that they did like, was playmaking -- plays that made a difference. Being a player who could win the game by creating something. I was doing well -- was the only one in my age group to get called up to the older age groups and was really enjoying that, but then, when I was nearly 12 we moved to the USA. I was very upset. Of all the countries to go to, the USA, where they didn’t play soccer!
When I arrived at first I didn’t know where to go. I played in the playground by myself for six months, then I signed up for Harrison Rec soccer.
PG: So, your first experience of American youth soccer. A shock?
TAB RAMOS: They gave me an orange T-shirt. Which I liked, it was like Holland’s shirt, but I think I was the only one to think that, to everyone else it was just an orange shirt. But there were kids with knee pads, sneakers, gear from other sports, etc. -- I wasn’t used to that. I lasted just one day in rec soccer, someone spotted me and I was taken to Kearny Thistle, and I was now with soccer players. I started to enjoy soccer again.
PG: Playing high school ball at St Benedict’s Prep -- that surely wasn’t the sort of soccer you’d grown up with?
TAB RAMOS: I was always being blatantly fouled by the opponent’s biggest player, game after game after game. I learned not to back down, to keep going. There was one game where they had four guys marking me, it was really strange, like I was playing in a box, wherever I went these four guys were surrounding me. Needless to say I didn't touch the ball much.
On the St Benedict’s team, there were maybe three or four soccer players, the rest were all athletes from other sports. In the end I had a lot of fun, but I can't say it helped my soccer development a whole lot.
At North Carolina State I had a coach, George Tarantini, who allowed a pretty free-wheeling sort of game, which was good for me and the skillful players we had. One thing I remember -- after my sophomore season, it was January, and I hadn’t played any soccer for a whole month. No one really wanted to play. I began to get the feeling that I had been a better player coming out of high school than I was going to be coming out of college ... I think I was probably right.
PG: Then, on to the pros. In Spain, with Figueres.
TAB RAMOS: Now it was serious, just what I always wanted. Learning how to get better, preparing for games, for match-ups, practicing set pieces -- this was a different perspective from just going out and playing.
In Spain I became more of a student of the game. I kept a ledger of all the players I played against as a right sided player -- all the left backs, their tendencies, speed, etc, etc, etc. I kept stats, and I would grade the players. I kept that up for years. Figueres was a second division team, and the game was a lot more physical than I expected but I enjoyed the success our team had there before being sold to Real Betis in Seville.
PG: I make it five years in Spain, a year and a half in Mexico with Tigres, then seven seasons with the New York/New Jersey MetroStars. Were you beginning to think about a coaching career during that span?
TAB RAMOS: I was learning about the game all the time, but I wasn’t convinced that I wanted to coach. It was a gradual process -- I took an “F” license in 2001, so I started teaching kids, including my son who was 6 years old. I retired in 2002, on my 36th birthday, and soon after that I took the “B” license. The "B" License piqued my interest even more. I learned more. But still at this point coaching was not my passion.
Then in 2003, I think it was, I met the Spanish coach Xabier Azkargorta -- he had coached Bolivia at the 1994 World Cup -- and he fired my enthusiasm. To get serious about coaching, he told me, "you just retired, you know very little about the game, to prepare thoroughly for the top level you should start with the younger kids, the basics of the game" -- which I already had -- "and work your way up through all the different age groups towards the pros."
And so I did, its been a rewarding process. I've coached over 500 games in the last 11 years. From 10-year-olds to 20-year-olds. In addition, I've been given the opportunity of learning and helping with Jurgen [Klinsmann] and the senior national team for two years. I've enjoyed all of it.
(Part 2 of "Tab Ramos: the Making of a Coach" will appear next week)