Will this Tab Ramos team find its rhythm?

By Mike Woitalla

On Saturday, we’ll find out whether the USA will qualify for the U-20 World Cup.

The winner of the USA-El Salvador playoff will earn one of the Concacaf region’s four spots at the U-20 World Cup that kicks off in May in New Zealand.

It shouldn’t have come to this. Coach Tab Ramos’ team should have finished atop its six-team group to clinch a spot, the way Mexico did in Group B. Instead, the Group A crown went to Panama, which beat the USA, 1-0.

Panama is a nation of 3.8 million people – the same as Los Angeles proper. It has never qualified for the senior World Cup. It’s better known for producing baseball players than soccer stars. One can only imagine how many more millions of dollars the U.S. Soccer Federation spends on youth development than Panama does.

Before the loss to Panama, the USA tied, 1-1, with Guatemala, another nation that has never qualified for the World Cup and has a fraction of the resources dedicated to the sport than the USA. (The Chapines’ tying goal was scored in spectacular fashion by U.S. resident Andy Ruiz, who joined the FC Dallas academy program this season.)

The next opponent, Aruba, whose entire soccer-playing population wouldn’t fill the stands of the stadium in Jamaica the game was played in, was no problem. The USA won, 8-0.

A 2-0 win over host Jamaica, which went winless in the tourney, and a 1-0 win over Trinidad & Tobago, earned the USA the playoff with El Salvador.

The good news being that the Americans bounced back from a dismal start to win three straight games and can still qualify. What’s disturbing about this team is how poorly it compares to Ramos’ team the last time around.

That team was a delight to watch. It had style and rhythm.

Ramos took over the U-20s after they failed to qualify for the 2011 U-20 World Cup and his team’s play during qualifying for the 2013 U-20 World Cup was one of the greatest tournament performances in U.S. national team history.

It won four straight games and in the final against Mexico -- winner of the previous U-17 World Cup and third-place finisher at the U-20 World Cup two years earlier -- took the host to overtime before falling, 3-1.

At the World Cup in Turkey, Ramos’ team had the worst possible draw: Spain, France and Ghana. It lost to Spain, 4-1, but in the first half had more possession against a team that usually doesn't let the opponent have the ball for more than a few seconds at a time. Ramos’ team got burned on counterattacks, but because we finally had a coach who tried to beat a world power instead of being satisfied with a narrow loss.

It tied, 1-1, against France, the eventual winner that featured Paul Pogba, and the USA was eliminated with a 4-1 loss to Ghana, which went on to finish third.

The hope was that, despite the losses at the U-20 World Cup, the USA would continue pursuing to master the style of play that Ramos’ first U-20 team played. It was certainly much more successful against the regional opponents than the current squad.

But this team is grinding its way through the tournament in the traditional American manner.

There are so many questions about why we don’t see more year-to-year progress with our national teams. Our U-17s and U-23s failed to qualify out of Concacaf for their last two world championships. Costa Rica did much better than the USA at the 2014 World Cup.

Obviously, having hundreds of thousands more players than our regional opponents and investing millions more dollars doesn’t matter once it's 11-v-11.

Missing is the style of play. Ramos’ team of two years ago was on the right track. What went wrong? Did Ramos veer because his boss is Jurgen Klinsmann, whose team, built around German products, plays a style very unlike like Ramos’ 2013 team?

Or Ramos’ players haven’t played together enough to master the teamwork required for outsmarting instead of outmuscling the opponent?

Perhaps the latter is the case, and on Saturday against El Salvador, Ramos’ team will finally find its rhythm.

22 comments about "Will this Tab Ramos team find its rhythm?".
  1. Georges Carraha, January 23, 2015 at 10:32 a.m.

    It does matter if the team makes it to the World Cup. It is not a good and balanced team. I am not impressed with the level of play and ultimately, the coaching staff bears responsibility. The team is DULL

  2. Georges Carraha, January 23, 2015 at 10:35 a.m.

    The players are outmusling their opponent because they were chosen for their size: typical american mindset in soccer. There is no creativity!

  3. Clayton Davis, January 23, 2015 at 10:46 a.m.

    I'd rather watch our team play the entertaining soccer of 2013 and crash out than watch the traditional score on the counter style we seem to always favor. I had such high hopes for this team after their performance last year, but now they're just playing Klinsiball.

  4. George Lenahan, January 23, 2015 at 11:07 a.m.

    It doesn't bother anyone that we gave up 9 goals the last time around in the World Cup the? We could possess the ball because the whole team was 5'7" midfielders. The right mix lies somewhere in between the last team and this team but please don't make the 2013 team out to be some revolutionary breakthrough. Spain was giggling to themselves in the first half of that game as we played a wide open style, perfect for their players to pick us apart on the counter.

  5. Mark Westhoff, January 23, 2015 at 11:08 a.m.

    I don't think there are any mysteries here. The USA team is good, but not great. USA could--please no one get offended here--probably field 20-25 teams as good as this team, perhaps a few better. Whittling down thousands of players to 20-30 is, by its very nature, going to be more or less arbitrary. All the items that we have been talking about for years: don't fixate on winning at young ages; let kids dribble; open soccer to those who cannot afford clubs...have a bearing, I think. What I see lacking in most competitive club teams the last 15 years is not technical nor tactical in nature, it is the CREATIVITY lacking in players. There are some for sure that are creative, but they are few and far between in my experiences. Technical experise is necessary but sometimes not enough to win. Creative players stick out to me from u7 on (maybe someone more expert can see earlier)...trying to funnel these players into training practices unsuited for them,ie, not created to foster those creative ones, might be part of the problem?

  6. beautiful game, January 23, 2015 at 11:37 a.m.

    Skill and purpose remains absent.

  7. Ginger Peeler, January 23, 2015 at 12:07 p.m.

    I think Mark has it right. We need kids who aren't just big, strong and fast, but who THINK the game, who anticipate the play...often several steps ahead. As long as we've got coaches urging kids to just "kick it" up the field, we've got problems. I watched my grandson play and his coach was teaching the team to control the ball, keep it on the ground and pass it. These were 7 year old kids. It was good. But the parents are screaming "Kick it! Kick it" every time their child comes near the ball. So, somehow, we need to work with the parents, too, so they understand and support helping the kids to be creative. I have no idea how to do that.

  8. Mark Coppess, January 23, 2015 at 12:24 p.m.

    Mark said it well no creativity. I was able to attend Eric Wynalda's Uncomplicating Coaching session at the NSCAA convention last week and while I liked Eric as a player I don't care for him as an analyst. Players are structured from the time they are 5 playing in rec till high school. They are not allowed in most cases to express themselves and what they read in training or matches. They have developed the wrong muscle memory. Old habits are hard to break especially when players get to 13 years and older. I think there are a lot of great players out there that fall through the cracks and until we can figure out how to fill the cracks things will be hard to change and be forcing more players looking to Europe to play

  9. Mark Konty, January 23, 2015 at 12:30 p.m.

    First, playing the kind of style Woitalla and others find more "entertaining" and "beautiful" to watch is not easy. If it was, everyone would be doing it. Second, any good coach matches his tactics to his players rather than the other way around. Finally, the opponent usually has something to say about your team plays (as George points out). In the senior WC the US was simply against better quality, and you play the Quality you take what you can get in terms of tactics. Obviously, a mediocre showing in U20 CONCAF qualifying is not about playing the Quality, rather I think its closer to Mark's point that the US simply has a player pool that is higher on athleticism and lower on technical/creative skill. It will change, but not overnight and certainly not in a handful of biennial cycles. Also, I wouldn't say that it is bad to have some high performance athletes on the team, the German national team is a nice balance of athleticism and technical ability and they only won a trophy.

  10. Miguel Dedo, January 23, 2015 at 1:03 p.m.

    How to comment on any article on a match played by a US soccer team:
    a. Choose at random 3 from the following list.
    b. Write them down and send them off.
    1) The players are out-muscling their opponent because they were chosen for their size: typical American mindset in soccer.
    2) We need kids who aren't just big, strong and fast, but who THINK the game,
    3) There is no creativity!
    4) I'd rather watch our team play the entertaining soccer of 2013 and crash out
    5) don't fixate on winning at young ages; let kids dribble; open soccer to those who cannot afford clubs...
    6) Skill and purpose remains absent.
    7) As long as we've got coaches urging kids to just "kick it" up the field, we've got problems.
    8) players are not allowed in most cases to express themselves.
    Conclusion: To paraphrase Lester Maddox, if we are going to have more creative soccer, the first thing we will need is more creative soccer commentary.

  11. Allan Lindh, January 23, 2015 at 2:01 p.m.

    Sorry Mike, it doesn't matter that we have 300 million people and Panama only has 4 million. It doesn't matter how many millions we spend on coaches and training. It doesn't matter how well organized we are, or how wise our commentators are. All that matters is how many kids, very young kids, like 5 or 6 years old, are kicking a ball around with other kids for the fun of it. Instead, children in this country watch TV and play video games. And are certainly never allowed to go the park without adult supervision to kick a ball around. If you want to change things, start this weekend. Buy a #3 ball, go to a park with lots of kids, and start to kick it around, or juggle. When the kids come around, kick the ball to them, get them kicking it around. Then tell the most interested kid that the ball is his/hers, and leave. Repeat as needed.

  12. Scott Nelson, January 23, 2015 at 3:52 p.m.

    Just to go out on a limb here.... is it possible that we are getting the same results every cycle because we keep doing the same things over and over again? Since Youth World Cup play started in 1985 the U20's have qualified for 11 of 14 tournaments, and have won a game in the knockout round three times. U17's have qualified for 14 of the 15 U16/U17 World Cups and have won a game in the knockout round only once (via PK's in 1999). Full men's and Olympic team also have one knockout win each over that time frame. (And the common denominator of the last three knockout wins I mentioned: Landon Donovan) Organizationally and in terms of cultural impact, the sport has made huge advances in this country since the 80's and even 90's. On the field, not so much. Now we have professional and club academies, residency programs, identification programs, national club competition, thousands upon thousands of paid coaches and coaching directors, etc, etc, etc but the performance needle has not really moved in the past 20 years. Our academy and MLS professional products are achieving the same results our college kids used to get. From grass roots to the top of the Federation, how we are doing things has never been better organized. What we are doing seems to be exactly the same, year after year.

  13. James Froehlich, January 23, 2015 at 4 p.m.

    Ginger--great comment about the parents! One thing that hasn't changed is the lack of knowledge of the majority of soccer parents. Most parents will never have even watched a soccer game on TV but will be more than willing to give advice to their kids and to the coach. "Kick it" is still ringing in my ears!
    Miguel--those phrases may indeed be cliches to folks reading this blog but unfortunately they are still being ignored in a good share of US soccer.

  14. Kevin Sims, January 23, 2015 at 4:16 p.m.

    I am confident quality coaching and shrewd tactics are in play at the moment. The continuing, telling issue is culture. Throw all the "resources" you want at soccer in this country ... but elite status will only come over time when the soccer culture in this country ignited the hearts and spirit of gifted athletes. Yes, coaching matters. No, coaching can not overcome deficits players bring to the table because their successes have not provoked them to be their very best and the culture has not attracted the most gifted.

  15. Thomas Hosier, January 23, 2015 at 6:43 p.m.

    I believe coaches are coaching creativity out of the young players. They are too focused on structure/systems. Creativity and independent thinking is not allowed. No Messi's, Ronaldo's, etc will be developed with the current style of coaching and player development.

  16. Scott Nelson, January 23, 2015 at 7:44 p.m.

    for Kevin: "elite status will only come over time?" How much time should pass before there are at least tangible signs of progress, either in terms of international results or in the caliber of players we produce? The population of our soccer subculture is now bigger than the population of some other countries that are better at soccer than we are. Compare the progress of all our programs with the the speed at which countries with no previous female football culture are catching up to the US Women. I feel that in this country we treat our development programs like we treat our players.... It's easier to talk about how great we are doing so we feel better about ourselves than to be brutally honest and say "Sorry, not good enough. Try harder. Try smarter"

  17. Jogo Bonito, January 24, 2015 at 6:59 p.m.

    Wow, lots of great comments. I think it's a combination of many things that makes this group so disappointingly unwatchable. My top reason is that Tab is unfortunately not a very good coach. It's clear that his team's are put together with a plan only Tab seems to understand. Also, the whole US Soccer coaching world is caught between to styles this moment. More coaches that speak Spanish than ever before (which is a good thing) have been hired. The problem is that many that I've seen are just terrible coaches. So we replaced some terrible coaches with new terrible coaches. Not to mention the terrible coaches that have stayed on that still undervalue Spanish-speaking talent. I have seen very few coaches that have the patience and understanding allow our players to develop. They all fall into this trap that has them coaching for the sake of coaching. They confuse our players with useless coaching twaddle and coach the creativity out of them by constantly correcting them and replacing them. Our players look scared to make a mistake. We never get into a good rhythm or develop into self-reliant group. Maybe, Bruce Arena can come in and tell everyone to stop coaching so much and let the players play.

  18. R2 Dad, January 24, 2015 at 9:32 p.m.

    We're in worse shape than I thought if Bruce Arena is supposed to be the salvation of our players and U20 team...

  19. Futsal nation, January 25, 2015 at 11:49 p.m.

    Allan, have you been to Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, etc?? You would be surprised to see how many kids play video games and watch TV. Mexico is now lazier than USA in rankings. Mexico still CONCACAF king. The more I read these columns the more I understand what is really wrong. Excuses

  20. Futsal nation, January 25, 2015 at 11:52 p.m.

    Goerge, Yes it doesnt matter that we got scored on so much last World Cup U20, when it comes down to the overall goal. USA Senior's didnt get scored on as much and almost beat a much much more superior team, Belgium. So??? We sucked!! We didnt deserve to beat them, lose to Germany by only 1 goal and/or beat Ghana. How many of those performances do you want to see from a country of our potential?? How many times are you going to wish for us to get lucky and make it a little farther with subpar skill??

  21. Futsal nation, January 25, 2015 at 11:58 p.m.

    4-6 CONCACAF countries have won U20 titles with Mexico leading with 13. USA has not won one!! Scott is spot on with all of his comments!! I'll tell you what the difference is. Its ACCOUNTABILITY!!!! Yes, smaller, poorer countries are catching up to USA WOmen's soccer and passing it!! Big RED FLAG!! The Unthinkable!!

  22. Noe Bastidas, January 26, 2015 at 6:35 p.m.

    Good convo. Here's my 2 cents with a focus on creativity.

    If we want more creativity, then we need to remove coaches and trainers. What does this look like?

    It looks like street soccer.
    It looks like kids playing pickup games on a patch of grass, on tennis courts.
    It looks like kids playing soccer every day before school, at recess, at lunch and after school with friends.
    It looks like kids playing with adults.
    It looks like basketball development in suburban and inner-city schools, parks and rec centers.
    It looks like soccer WITHOUT coaches and trainers.

    My reference to basketball is important. The USA produces exceptionally creative basketball players by allowing young players to PLAY basketball without coaches. This is not rocket science.

    Some of the Problems - Youth soccer in mainstream USA is a business, first, and sport, second. Youth soccer in mainstream USA is an organized activity for children, but parents have no history in the sport, parents do not play with their kids, parents do not watch soccer. Youth soccer in the USA where kids plays soccer every day and are developing creativity (primarily in inner-city immigrant communities) is considered illegitimate or is simply ignored.

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