By Paul Gardner
A few weeks back, in this column, Tab Ramos laid out his thoughts on coaching. What he had to say should be of vital interest to anyone involved in coaching, and in the development of the sport in this country. Yes, I am partisan on this issue, so let’s get that out of the way immediately. I stand by what I said when I introduced the Ramos columns at the beginning of this month: “The 2011 appointment of Tab Ramos as the coach of the US under-20 team seems to me the most important move that has ever been made [by] the U.S. Soccer Federation.”
Ramos is that important because he is different, a coach from a rather different world to that of the regular USSF coaching school product. And that marks an important breakthrough. A first step in breaking the stranglehold that unsuitable coaches have had for decades on the development and training processes for players -- of all ages -- in this country.
By unsuitable I mean, quite simply, coaches who have not been prepared for the reality of the rapidly changing American soccer scene, or who are unwilling to face up to that reality. The resulting roadblock is the chief culprit for the slow pace of American player development. Another way of expressing that sad state of affairs is to say that it explains why national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann feels compelled to bring in foreign-born and foreign-trained American players. That, after decades of highly organized and plentifully financed youth development programs.
Which is where Ramos enters the picture. With his selection of players for the Under-20 World Cup team, he broke the unspoken bias that has plagued American soccer for far too long -- the bias against the Latin style of play, and hence against Latino players.
His team -- including eight Latinos -- played magnificently in the Concacaf final against Mexico. It lost 3-1 in overtime, but it had played real, flowing, skillful, intelligent soccer. In the subsequent World Cup, against two of Europe’s top teams (Italy, and France the eventual winner) and African powerhouse Ghana, the results were not there -- but the attempt to play stylish soccer still shone through. As did the competitiveness of the players -- an important point.
That came about because Ramos went looking for players to whom ball control and artistry came easy. Using that as his main criterion, he came up with a primarily Hispanic team. He flatly denies that he was specifically looking for Hispanic players.
Of course I take his word for that, but I think it unfortunate that he does not emphasize that his search for skillful players ended up giving him a predominantly Hispanic team. In other words, among young American players, it is the Hispanics who have the edge in ball skills. At the moment -- I stress that, because this is a situation that will change -- provided the coaches and the coaching system in this country can turn their collective back on past failings and embrace a new skill-based future.
That, surely, is what the USSF’s Claudio Reyna-inspired curriculum is designed to do. That may work -- in the long term. But there is nothing as convincing as seeing a paper-theory turned into real-life action. Particularly in sports. For that to happen, Ramos needs to continue his work with the national U-20 team, to continue his reliance on skillful ball players. No, he won’t win the U-20 World Cup, not yet, but the Ramos approach is the one, the only one, that gives the USA a real chance of such a win. The USA simply cannot afford to allow the under-20s -- and its other youth teams -- to relapse back into their former bad habits.
There appears to be encouraging news there -- a look at the latest U.S. under-15 team reveals that 22 of the 30 players on the roster are Hispanics. Significantly, the coach of that team is Hugo Perez -- like Ramos, a Latin-born player who played for the USA as a creative midfielder.
I don’t know if 22 out of 30 is “too many” Hispanics. I don’t know if there is any such proportion as “too many” -- either of Hispanics or of non-Hispanics. I do know that if the USA wants to make an impact, even cut a swath, at the international level it must pay much more attention to producing skilled, creative players.
Ramos did when selecting this year’s under-20 team. Quite possibly he has opened the door for Perez to do the same, only more so. At this stage, it ought to be in order to say that there is no going back. I’m not so sure. The coaching structure, the coaching schools and their examinations, are inevitably built around the theory of the game, their notions and the expression of them have an essentially academic feel to them.
It’s not clear to me that such a system can produce the more free-thinking type of coach that Ramos represents. My own experience of coaching-school coaches is that they tend to the one-dimensional theoretical side of the game, with a standard, ready-formulated view the sport.
But there must be mavericks out there, there always are mavericks ... particularly in the USA. That is why I would like Ramos to speak more forcefully on the matter of Hispanic players, to let us know what it is they have that non-Hispanic players do not and whythey have it, and howthey acquired it. I want to see him as the man who -- at long last -- opened the doors -- maybe even floodgates, at least initially -- to the huge pool of Hispanic talent in this country. And the coach who gives encouragement to other coaches who share his vision.
That’s more than enough of me trying to plan out Ramos’ life for him. The hard fact is that no one makes a career out of being an under-20 coach. Ramos will move onward and upward. Maybe within the USSF. Maybe he will move to MLS, where young Americans with less experience in the game -- Caleb Porter, Jason Kreis, Jay Heaps, Mike Petke -- are flourishing. Should Ramos join that group, I can only hope -- maybe even pray -- that the path he has opened up will be continued by the USSF. It is the only way to ensure a fair deal for all American players, the only way to ensure that the USA does, at some future date, enter the small number of true world powers in soccer.