The USA qualified for the U-20 World Cup for the second straight time during the tenure of Coach Tab Ramos, who took over after the USA missed the 2011 U-20 World Cup. We spoke to Ramos, who also serves as U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director, about the team's performance at the U-20 Concacaf Championship in Jamaica, the progress of players from his 2013 team and American youth player development.
SOCCER AMERICA: Now that you’ve had a few days to digest, how do you assess the performance of your team,
which tied Guatemala (1-1) and lost to Panama (1-0) before four straight wins -- over Aruba (8-0), Jamaica (2-0), Trinidad & Tobago (1-0) and El Salvador (2-0)?
TAB RAMOS: In terms of the playing side. Do I wish we played better? Absolutely. I wish we would have had better possession in the games, because I personally like to play more of a possession game. As far as opportunities we created, I’m happy.
We created a lot of opportunities. We created a lot of shots. Unfortunately, we were not good enough in front of the goal. When you look at the 92 shots we had in the tournament, we should have scored 25 goals. We scored only 14. And for me, that’s not great in a Concacaf tournament.
But I see it as the glass half-full.
SA: How so?
TAB RAMOS: The way the Guatemala game turned out changed the whole tournament for us. But I’m very happy with how the team reacted. We lost our captain, Kellyn Acosta, [to injury] after our second game and that was difficult because we lost him at a time when we probably needed him the most. And the team rallied around it. I think they did a good job.
SA: How do you explain the slow start?
TAB RAMOS: A slow start is sometimes normal for a favorite because you’re planning your tournament over six games, aiming to peak at the end. Our goal was to be Concacaf champion. The Guatemala result turned our planning upside down.
I didn’t expect Guatemala to only defend in the game. I thought they would play a solid counter game where we could get in on transition sometimes. Our idea was to find space behind their outside backs. That’s why we played in a 4-3-3, to have our wingers fresh enough to exploit that space.
Even when we were ahead, 1-0, Guatemala didn’t attack. They were good with a 1-0 loss. Then a pass hit the referee at midfield, we committed a foul and their free kick resulted in a corner kick. They scored an incredible goal when we should have been up 3-0.
Against Panama, a loss or a tie would have meant the same for us. But we’re planning to win all our games and we gambled and Panama got a goal.
As it turned out, Panama was a very special team. We finished third. I do believe Panama and Mexico were the two best teams. That doesn’t take anything away from us. I think we could have won the tournament, because the difference between the teams was very small.
SA: The field conditions looked pretty dismal in Jamaica …
TAB RAMOS: The first field we played on in Kingston against Guatemala and Panama was in very good shape so there was really no issue. When we moved to Montego Bay [for the final four games], the field was atrocious. You couldn’t stand on it without slipping sideways. But both teams are on the same field.
The only thing is when the field is bad it does level the teams a bit and that’s a disadvantage for the better team, which I think we were against Jamaica, Trinidad and El Salvador. But you have to adapt.
And when you watch the Mexico-Panama final -- they played on the same horrible field -- and that was a great game. They played a great final on a very poor field. [Mexico won on PKs after a 1-1 tie.]
SA: How important is it that this group is going to a U-20 World Cup?
TAB RAMOS: No matter how many friendly games you play, in the end there’s nothing like the real competition where you’re playing for something. You can beat Spain, or go to Argentina and tie Argentina like we did in Argentina -- but for the most part such results are meaningless until you’re playing for something. The intensity is just not there.
I can tell you we played Argentina in Argentina to a 1-1 tie and the game was much easier than our qualifying games, even against Jamaica -- and Jamaica was a poor team in this tournament.
For all these players, going to the World Cup gives them an opportunity to play for something and to see the speed of the game being different.
We went to last World Cup and had the opportunity to play three great teams [Spain, France, Ghana] and I think that’s a great learning experience. I want to win every game I coach, and obviously I didn’t want to get beat up like we got beat up at last U-20 World Cup. But you get there and you're faced with how aggressive these players are, how they go for the ball, and we’re just not used to that everyday.
We have a lot to learn and so those experiences are invaluable for our players. We have to get to the World Cup every time.
SA: How do you rate the progress of your 2013 U-20 team's players?
TAB RAMOS: I think it’s moved along as expected. You knew Wil Trap was going to be a special player -- someone who would have a long career, and he’s on his way. You knew DeAndre Yedlin, because of his speed, his ability to track guys down and to go forward … that he was going to be somebody. But I’d be lying to you if I said I expected him to be in the World Cup the following year. Those were the guys you thought might have the brightest future.
Then you have guys like Shane O’Neill and Dillon Serna, who [played in qualifying but] didn’t play in the U-20 World Cup because he was in poor form at the time, but they’re very good players and they’ll have good careers.
I think everybody’s pretty much where we expected. I’d don’t think there’s a lot of players who will go on to have 10-year national team careers.
The only surprise is Benji Joya. He was a big part of my team, in the middle of the field, played all the time, has a great engine. Unfortunately he has not been taking the strong enough steps to be somewhere where he’s making a difference, and that’s a little disappointing to me in that particular case.
Editor's note: Yedlin, Trapp, O'Neill, Serna and Luis Gil are on Jurgen Klinsmann's roster for Wednesday's friendly against Chile.
SA: Anything in particular you got out of your experience of being an assistant to Jurgen Klinsmann at the 2014 World Cup?
TAB RAMOS: So much. As a player, I never comprehended how big the entire operation is -- how many moving parts there are in every direction.
I wouldn’t necessarily run U-20 sessions different than we did the senior national team. But the rest of it, the full operation that it is, was amazing.
Editor’s note: Ramos played for the USA at the 1990, 1994 and 1998 World Cup teams.
SA: Putting on your Youth Technical Director hat, can you speak to the youth development initiatives recently announced by the Federation, such as mandating small-sided games and field size at the youngest levels …
TAB RAMOS: We need to make the game smaller. We need our players, from already 7 and 8 years old, to be playing in tighter environments so we know how to handle a ball better.
When I look at our U-20 and U-23 players and their ability to handle the ball with a man on their back, and then I look at the ability of a player from Guatemala, for example, or El Salvador, in the way they manage the ball -- and I’m not even talking about Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, just Central America – their relationship with the ball and the way they use their bodies to protect the ball, we are very naive when it comes to that.
It’s not our players’ fault. It’s more, how can we change the environment to help them get better from when they’re little.
SA: It seems to me that one of most important player development moves has come from MLS, whose clubs are starting to field USL PRO teams to give real league action to young players not ready to play for the first team …
TAB RAMOS: That’s huge. Of all the things MLS does, this is one of the best moves MLS has made in 20 years. This will really help MLS in its development of its players. Because no matter how much money they spend on their academy, if once they sign a player at 16, 17, 18 years old, and they don’t have a place to play where they can go up against men and have a game every weekend -- where they have to fight for ball and have to get stronger -- then all the work they’ve done in their academies goes down the drain. This fills that gap.
It’s a great idea. Our national teams will benefit from that because the younger players will be playing all the time.