In my previous column I reported on a conversation with Tab Ramos in Q&A form. But the longer the conversation lasted, the clearer it became that my questions were not really adding much, and were merely getting in the way of Ramos’ thought flow. So this time, Ramos does all the talking as he explains his methods in putting together the U.S. team for the 2012 U-20 World Cup, and his thoughts on coaching in general. I did, eventually, have three questions -- which, along with Ramos’s answers, I‘ve tacked on at the end.
TAB RAMOS: In 2004 I had started a youth soccer club in Holmdel, New Jersey -- NJSA 04 -- so I was coaching different age groups from nine upward -- really doing exactly what Xabier Azkargorta had told me I needed to do -- work my way up and learn all of the basics -- no shortcuts.
Also in 2004, I began to get more and more involved with the U.S. Soccer Federation and joined their technical taskforce. I enjoyed the meetings -- there were one or two each year, usually in Chicago. I was finding a new respect for the game by seeing just how many people were involved in solving developmental issues, how they'd go about it, how long it takes to get things done and how patient you have to be to wait for results. It wasn’t all just important coaches or U.S. Soccer Federation officials. There were representatives of MLS, Nike, U.S. Youth Soccer, etc. All people who could really make a difference.
So now I’m seeing soccer from a totally different perspective. I started to think about the present and the future, what we could be doing to make our players better. The type of players we should be looking for.
Right after the 2006 World Cup, the Federation called again and offered a little more responsibility, and this was a big surprise. They’d just decided to make a coaching change and remove Bruce Arena as the national team coach, and now they needed someone to send to the post-World Cup technical seminar in Germany. I jumped at the chance and traveled there with Bob Jenkins who was U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching at the time.
It was an amazing experience -- the World Cup coaches, all the best coaches in the world -- I saw some I had met before and met and spoke with many I had only seen on TV. I think this was what pushed me over the threshold about becoming a coach -- I was developing more of a love for the game. Sitting there discussing the game with the top experts in the world -- everyone was there who was someone in soccer. FIFA, UEFA, CONMEBOL, etc, etc. I hope I have another opportunity to do this!
I went down to Bradenton when Wilmer Cabrera asked me to lend a hand with the under-17s, and after that Thomas Rongen invited me to work with him and the under-20s. I learned a great deal working with both. When Rongen was let go in 2011, with his support, I interviewed for the U-20 job -- and that’s where I am now.
I was really happy to get the appointment, I have always been extremely proud to wear the U.S. crest -- it meant I had about a year to create a team for the under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament in Mexico. I was already prepared -- I’d put together a report for Jurgen [Klinsmann] on all the young players who were now moving up. I was also branching out to people like Hugo Perez and Thomas Dooley, as well as ex-youth national team coaches, present Academy coaches, scouts overseas, etc., to get the names of players I hadn’t seen, to find out where they were playing. Hugo has a great eye for talent -- something that doesn’t come easily for everyone. He’s the one who recommended Benji Joya and Danny Cuevas, two important members of the team who had not been with our programs before.
On the coaching side I brought in Brian Bliss [Editor’s note: Bliss is currently the interim head coach of the Columbus Crew] as assistant, a right hand man -- he’s extremely knowledgeable about the game and about players. He had a lot to do with the selection of players, the way we played and the overall success of the team.
We went looking for players who are comfortable with the ball. Players who always want the ball, even with a man on their back, players who are not going to shy away when there’s a lot of pressure, players who can turn in traffic and create space, that’s not something that’s easy to find.
I wanted to play a possession-type game -- a lot of movement, a very active and happy type game, with the players enjoying playing, moving all around the field and willing to play at a high intensity. It’s not hard to find skillful guys in this country, but we wanted skillful guys willing to do the work required to recover the ball immediately. That’s not so easy -- there are skillful players playing in parks all over the country, but most have never been taught to work to recover the ball, and I think by the time they’re 18 or 19, it’s too late to learn that.
We were looking for a game where we’re building from the back -- not willing to give the ball away, if possible playing in the opposing team’s side of the field, taking risks there to recover the ball, so that all the mistakes, ours and theirs, happen in their half.
For me, that style, that way of seeing the game, comes from a combination of things. From Barcelona, for instance -- that’s Barcelona from about 25 years ago, when Johan Cruyff was the coach. I was in Spain then, with UE Figueres -- only about an hour north of Barcelona. Barcelona was a wonderful team, with so many good players, with such great timing of runs and passes. And with Michael Laudrup. It was, at times, so perfectly synchronized and for me, that was the first team that I found a joy to watch.
For the U-20s we were selecting all the best players, not so much for specific positions. I’d rather have a good player in an unfamiliar position than an ordinary player playing a familiar role.
All the time we’re looking for those players who can receive the ball in crowded areas and not panic. It worked out pretty well.
Center back is the position where you can’t be as flexible. You need at least one player who is tall and good in the air -- so as much as we wanted to pick players who were all comfortable with the ball, and who could turn with it, you need different types of quality in a center back, I don’t think there’s a way around that.
We had four center backs. One was a regular center back, the other three we converted from midfielders. Shane O’Neill was a central midfielder with good feet, not exactly what we wanted in our midfield as we had other players ahead there. He became an aggressive center back, good in the air -- and with very good feet. He was excellent in that position. Caleb Stanko was a similar case.
We made another switch with Dillon Serna who came as a left midfielder, but did a great job for us as a right fullback in qualifiers. Just an all-around good player.
We were very happy with the midfield -- we missed a bit when we lost Marc Pelosi to injury. But Will Trapp did a very good job -- he always wants the ball -- has great feet. His role was defensive mid -- but that doesn’t mean he can’t go forward. Luis Gil was the more attacking mid, with Benji Joya as a two-way player. There was no reason for us to think, at any time, that we couldn’t play a ball to any of those guys.
With young players -- they normally don’t tend to play the ball to players who are marked. We spent a year preaching that it was a must -- at every single camp, we had to play into crowded areas. OK -- against Ghana in the World Cup, a ball was played into Danny Garcia in the middle and he turned and lost it and they scored. You risk that. Danny will make a good control 99 times out of a 100. I would want that same ball played to him every time.
They’re young players -- this is the time to make mistakes, more than any other time -- even if it is a big game.
I’ll summarize how we wanted to play: through midfield, with speed. Not hitting the ball over the top. A possession game.
I wanted good players. I like to have players who want the ball. We selected good players and I’m not at all dissatisfied. We were a very good team.
PAUL GARDNER: The accusation will be -- has been -- made that you were favoring Latino players. Were you?
TAB RAMOS: I would object to that -- I like a possession-type style -- whatever people want to call it. My first influence was a Barcelona team ... with a Dutch coach.
Let me give you some names -- Landon Donovan, Clint Dempsey, Clint Mathis, Mix Diskerud. None of them Latino. But I could fill a team with those type of players -- non-Latino players -- with their skills.
I really like the African players' relationship with the ball, their balance and how naturally they position their bodies so that they always protect the ball, it’s so easy, almost as if they are using their hands, it’s beautiful.
In this country we have enough talent. When I took over the U-20s, it seemed to be the feeling that this was a weak age group -- not one with a lot of talent. By the end we were a very good team with a lot of talent.
There is a strong group coming up -- many of the players are with MLS teams -- and a lot of them don’t have Hispanic names.
One time there will be a team with many Latinos -- next time, fewer. Its about skill and comfort with the ball.
For myself and my staff -- I know we would have selected the same team had we not known the names -- if we’d had numbers only. The same team.
PAUL GARDNER: Is it not a fact that the colleges have shown little interest in furthering the interests of Latino soccer? That there are very few Latino coaches in college soccer? Or in MLS for that matter?
TAB RAMOS: College now is not as important -- we know that most of the best players don’t go to college -- it’s a secondary option.
If they go, they stay one or two years only
Maybe it still makes sense for a goalkeeper.
Twenty games a year are just not enough. Plus, the free substitution rule makes it a different game.
PAUL GARDNER: In your experience of the U.S. coaching scene, is there ever any discussion of a technique gap between Latino and non-Latino players?
TAB RAMOS: No, never really discussed that specifically. But in general terms we always discuss how we can get to all the best players no matter where they play or what their background is. We are working non-stop. There are good players all over the country, from New Jersey to Oregon and back to Florida but we are all well aware that most of the best soccer is played in California and Texas and many of those teams are filled with Hispanic players.
With this U-20 team, we raised eyebrows this year, even in the midst of losing some games. We raised awareness and made people think. In the end, thinking about solutions is what coaching is about.
(Read Part 1 of "Tab Ramos: the Making of a Coach" HERE.)