Tab Ramos paints a rosy American future in the changing U-20 World Cup -- but a U-18 World Cup would make more sense

By Paul Gardner

Tab Ramos has been talking in glowing terms of his team and its adventures at the Under-20 World Cup in the Republic of Korea. Certainly, there is plenty that looks good. Winning its group, getting to the quarterfinal. Listen up: “We built a team with confident players who were there to win the tournament ...”  Followed by “We could have won it.” 

But could they?  Ramos is surely overdoing the praise. In 2013 he had a wonderful young team -- really the first US national team I have ever seen (that takes in some 56 years of watching these teams) that played with style, coherence, skill and confidence. An exciting team and a pleasure to watch. The team played beautifully in the Concacaf qualifiers, even in losing to Mexico in a splendid championship game.

It did not fare well at the 2013 World Cup in Turkey -- but that had a great deal to do with the luck of the draw. Being grouped with France, Spain and Ghana looked like some sort of punishment -- Spain was one of the tournament favorites, while France and Ghana both advanced to the semifinals. France was the eventual winner.

The USA, hardly a surprise, got just one point from a tie with France, and did not make it out of the first round.

Ramos had chosen players who, as he put it, were “not afraid of the ball.” The majority of them -- 13 of the 21-player roster, including seven starters -- turned out to be Hispanic, though Ramos denied that he was looking for Hispanic players.

Would that Ramos had persisted with whatever his criteria were, for they gave us a team with evidence of subtlety and artistry, the key but elusive elements for so long lacking in American teams.

But when the 2015 U-20 World Cup arrived, Ramos was evidently operating with a different set of values. We were back to the long-standing and much-admired Yankee virtues of sturdy physical players with an aggressive approach. The number of Hispanic players on the roster slumped to 6 (4 starters). Subtlety and artistry had been replaced by power and athleticism.

A team, then, that would not be bullied, that would do all those supposedly professional things like knowing how to close games out, and how to grind out wins. This time, in 2015 in New Zealand, the luck of the draw swung forcefully in the Americans’ favor. Their first-round opponents would be Myanmar (its first appearance), New Zealand (unlikely to beat anybody) and Ukraine.  

The USA duly beat Myanmar 2-1, toyed with New Zealand for a 4-0 win, then lost 0-3 to Ukraine. Far from brilliant, but enough to pass into the next round. A well-played win over Colombia led to a quarterfinal against Serbia. Where the lack of subtlety and artistry meant the USA had no answer to the suffocating boredom of Serbia’s cautious play. So “grinding out” was what we got from both teams, meaning a thoroughly tedious 0-0 overtime game (in 120 minutes seven shots on goal, just two of them by the USA). Serbia won the inevitable shootout (and went on to win the tournament) while the USA went home.

This year, for the 2017 tournament, just four Hispanics were on the roster, three of them starters. Looking at the results does nothing to support Tab Ramos’s euphoria. As in 2015, the USA landed in a comparatively easy group, but managed only a very lucky 3-3 tie with Ecuador, a solid 1-0 win over Senegal, then a feeble 1-1 tie with decidedly unfancied Saudi Arabia. 

A lonely win and two dodgy ties were enough for the USA to top the group. Looking beyond the results, yes, there were encouraging signs. That shaky start against Ecuador showed a team with a lively spirit, with the evident intention to play good soccer. 

As one has seen so often before with USA teams, the best came when things got desperate and -- or so I would like to think -- it is up to the players, not the coach, to force the issue. Urgently needing a tying goal the USA suddenly ratcheted up the pressure with really menacing attacks, and got their reward. It was not a convincing performance, but it was a huge advance from the grinding-out activities of 2015.

On to the next round ... to face New Zealand. New Zealand? A much weaker team than any of the first-round opponents. But that is the sort of lunacy that results from FIFA’s political meddling with the makeup of its tournaments. 

The USA scored six against the Kiwis, and could easily have had 10. Whether such a rout truly boosts confidence or whether it induces overconfidence, who knows. What the result did mean was that the USA was now in the quarterfinals without having played a strong opponent. 

That was about to change dramatically with the arrival of Venezuela, which had quickly impressed everyone, not only with its results -- 4 games played, 4 victories, no goals conceded -- but particularly with its fast-moving, intelligent and skillful soccer.

It is at this point that I find Ramos’s rosy view of his team seriously departing from reality. Facing its first real test, the USA was badly outplayed. Yes, the final score -- a 2-1 win for Venezuela -- makes it sound close. But it wasn’t. There is, among the welter of numbers that get thrown at us after every game, beyond the scoreline, one stat, maybe the only one, that has real, undeniable value. I mean shots at goal. Venezuela had 26, the USA just 7. Shots on target were 8-2, Venezuela’s including two that hit the crossbar.

Late in the game, the USA managed what no team had yet done -- it scored against the Venezuelans. Too late, and not a goal that should be allowed to diminish the overwhelming superiority of Venezuela.

Is it likely -- or even possible -- that the USA would have done better had it been able to include Christian Pulisic in its lineups? (He was not available, being already an important first-team player for his club Borussia Dortmund and the senior U.S. national team). 

Doubtful. He could hardly be expected to turn that 26-7 shots-on-goal stat around. Anyway, even thinking in those terms ignores the fact that the USA was not the only team that could not get top players released. The Germans were missing players, and we have Tab Ramos’ word that the Italians, Uruguayans and English had the same problem.

The beauty of Venezuela lay in its neat, skillful passing game, with every player able to join in without slowing things down or messing them up. To quote Ramos: “They had very good players in every position ...” meaning, I think, players who weren’t afraid of the ball. The very criterion that Ramos himself said was key to his selections for the USA in 2013.

But not so key in 2017. What has happened to Ramos’s vision during that four-year span? I don’t feel there’s any secret about that. During those years Ramos could be seen on the bench of the U.S. national team, under the influence of Jurgen Klinsmann. A coach whose teams never showed any inclination towards stylistic coherence, a coach who never showed much interest in the qualities offered by Hispanic players.

That Klinsmann has had an influence on Ramos I cannot doubt. Whether for better or for worse -- well, that will depend on your preferences. I find it negative, if only because Ramos was just beginning to find his feet as a coach -- his own feet, not Klinsmann’s -- when the German took over.

The result being that Ramos’s U-20s rapidly changed from being a team of great promise in 2013, because a definable style was being developed, to being simply the latest in the long line of U.S. national teams that remain basically style-less.

Better, of course. Why not? Our players, like those almost everywhere in the world, improve. In that sense it is useful to compare American progress to the emergence of Venezuela. Another team that has shown much improvement -- an almost startling improvement in fact. And a team with style. Ramos was much impressed by them, as well he might be. But what Venezuela has done so impressively, could have been a work-in-progress here in the USA. Ramos, relying on his own instincts and experience, started it in 2013. 

It is wholly regrettable that the 2013 team now seems to have acquired the label of a “failed experiment.” Regrettable above all because here was something definable, a solid soccer basis, on which to build. When Ramos says “We could have won it” I wonder whether he should even be thinking in those terms. The question for national youth coaches (assuming for the moment that the U-20s are a youth team) has always been: is the aim to develop players or to win titles? For countries like Brazil and Argentina the question has long been resolved -- they can do both. For lesser countries, the answer is not so clear. 

Ramos, though, pretty obviously feels that the USA can join Argentina and Brazil as countries that can go in search of trophies without damaging the development process. Well, maybe. I remain doubtful that we have got the basics right yet.

Mentioning Venezuela: their remarkable run in the tournament came to an end with a 1-0 defeat by England in the final. So England wins its first FIFA title in over 50 years ... and wins it with a decidedly un-English looking team, with a rather un-English style. Does this mark the long-awaited English revival? 

There is another reason to think that may be the case. The day before England took the U-20 World Cup title, another English U-20 team had won the Toulon tournament in France. This tournament has a long history of serving as an early showcase for upcoming talent -- winning it is no small achievement. In terms of player-development, it probably means more than the world title.

(Since I was recently lamenting the weakness of Scottish soccer, I should point out that Scotland finished third at Toulon.)

Change is afoot, evidently, and this U-20 World Cup tells the story. Well, some of it. Where, in the Korea tournament, were Brazil and Argentina, the South American powers who between them have won 11 of the 20 tournaments? Brazil didn’t even qualify, while Argentina’s rather ordinary team failed to get out of the first round. Also absent were the Africans from Nigeria and Ghana. Those two countries have racked up eight final-four appearances, with Ghana winning the title in 2009. On the positive side, England looked good, as did Italy -- two countries who have never shone at this level before.

Germany did not perform well. Like the USA, Germany was missing key players. On that point, there is a re-think that FIFA should make. Revise the age requirements.

The U-20 tournament was first played in 1977. It was called the “FIFA World Youth Championship.” But the word “youth” looked more and more of a misnomer as the years passed. The “boys” on these teams increasingly looked like, and played, like men. There was little that smacked of youth soccer to be seen. In 2007 FIFA renamed the tournament -- it became the FIFA U-20 World Cup. No mention of youth any more.

Changing the name, though, did not solve a source of irritation, even animosity, that arose for the major powers as they had to face the fact that some of their best players were already important players with pro teams -- who simply would not release them. 

A partial answer to that problem would be to lower the age group. An under-18 World Cup would certainly be a lot closer to the “youth” tournament that FIFA originally had in mind. As it would surely reduce the number of players pro teams would refuse to release.

Alongside that change should come a parallel shift for the U-17 World Cup. An under-16 tournament makes more sense -- I think it’s true to say that the youngsters are now more ready for the big games in foreign countries than they were 32 years ago when the U-17 World Cup began in 1985. 

The double shift to U-18 and U-16 tournaments would also mean a two-year age gap between the two. At the moment, there is a three-year gap (between U-20 and U-17) which, with the tournaments being staged every two years, works against U-17 players passing smoothly to the U-20s.

20 comments about "Tab Ramos paints a rosy American future in the changing U-20 World Cup -- but a U-18 World Cup would make more sense ".
  1. Fire Paul Gardner Now, June 12, 2017 at 12:25 p.m.

    Once again Paul is more concerned with the racial makeup of the roster than results.

  2. don Lamb replied, June 12, 2017 at 1:56 p.m.

    The idea that Hyndman, Zelalem, Rubin, etc. made up a traditionally gritty US lineup in 2015 just because their names aren't latin is simply false. That team played with plenty of style and possession and skill. The problem with that team is that Rubin and the wingers just were not that dangerous at all. And the suggestion that Pulisic and other American holdouts would not have made much of a difference is mindboggling. Pulisic alone would have made a huge difference in how that game was played.

  3. Scott Johnson replied, June 12, 2017 at 6:41 p.m.

    Uh, Rubio Rubin is decidely Latino. (Half Mexican, half Guatemalan, though born and raised in Oregon).

  4. don Lamb replied, June 13, 2017 at 1:26 p.m.

    My bad. I only knew about the Oregon part.

  5. Allan Lindh, June 12, 2017 at 2:44 p.m.

    Sorry Mr. Gardner, you're stuck on the half-full glass. In 2015 we took Serbia to PKs, could have won. They won the tournament. And they out muscled us in a brutal fashion that the ref didn't curtail. (One even wonders about their ages) This year we took Valenzuela to OT, could have won in regular time. Again they were heavy on the muscle. And they came close to winning against England in the final. Reality is with a rub of the green we could have won both in 2015 and 17. And harping on last names and skin color is getting pretty old. If you are suggesting that Tab Ramos didn't pick more skilled players because they were of Hispanic heritage, that is rubbish, and you should retire.

  6. jose cornejo replied, June 12, 2017 at 4:51 p.m.

    Allan, Valenzuela used to pitch for the dodgers, Venezuela just had an excellent run at the U 20 world cup

  7. Clayton Davis, June 12, 2017 at 2:45 p.m.

    The reason that they have tournaments three years apart is that everyone gets a chance to be on the older side of the range.

  8. John Soares, June 12, 2017 at 2:49 p.m.

    Paul, as usual makes some good points. Today I think today he was paid by the word:) Apparently Paul has not been watching Pulisic on the "senior" team. Imagine the possibilities had he started next to Sargent.

  9. R2 Dad replied, June 12, 2017 at 7:40 p.m.

    You raise an interesting issue, John, regarding CP playing in an age-appropriate tournament. England, having not won anything since the jurassic, was continually wondering if their star youth players should still "play up" on the full men's team when their U teams never won anything. I don't think their path forward answered that question, but seems more that their youth players aren't getting much play time in the premier league--the top league of their home country--but they managed anyway.

  10. Ben Myers, June 12, 2017 at 3:34 p.m.

    As long as US Soccer at all levels favors size and athleticism over skill and soccer mentality, the USMNT is doomed to mediocrity.

  11. Miguel Dedo, June 12, 2017 at 3:44 p.m.

    Is Pulisic an Hispanic name? Sargeant? Sargeant's sombrero against Ecuador is one of the classiest goals ever scored by an EstadoUnidense.

  12. R2 Dad, June 12, 2017 at 7:44 p.m.

    I think Tab went backwards with his development of Gedion Z. At Arsenal, on loan, and now with the U20 team, GZ is being played as a dmid. If you want the benefits of possession, throughballs in attack, you play GZ as an attacking mid. Otherwise, don't play him at all.

  13. Paul Berry, June 12, 2017 at 10:27 p.m.

    I love this article. I think this suns up US international soccer, or what's wrong with it, even under Arena:
    - long-standing and much-admired Yankee virtues of sturdy physical players with an aggressive approach.
    - A team, then, that would not be bullied, that would do all those supposedly professional things like knowing how to close games out, and how to grind out wins.
    - Jurgen Klinsmann. A coach whose teams never showed any inclination towards stylistic coherence
    - the long line of U.S. national teams that remain basically style-less.
    - As one has seen so often before with USA teams, the best came when things got desperate and -- or so I would like to think -- it is up to the players, not the coach, to force the issue.

    There was a moment last night when the US put together a series of about 20 passes that resulted in an overhit cross. It was the only time the US looked totally at ease in the whole game. More of that and less of Jermaine Jones, please.

  14. Bob Ashpole, June 13, 2017 at 2:05 a.m.

    I don't buy into any of these over simplified explanations of what is wrong with player development. Too much emphasis on athleticism in the development of professional athletes? We must have different definitions for athleticism because in my opinion athletic ability (talent for playing sports) is extremely relevant. Since when is dribbling, striking or controlling a ball not an athletic skill? There are four aspects of a player and all four are important for professional success. The problems I see are too much emphasis on match results and developing teams instead of developing players. We need a greater emphasis on ball skills, general movement skills, and mental skills at the younger ages, more training opportunities, less travel, more opportunities for unorganized play, free training for the top teen players, and an end to the pay to play model. No where did I mention the racial, ethnic or social status of the players.

  15. frank schoon replied, June 13, 2017 at 1:24 p.m.

    BOB, exactly.

  16. don Lamb replied, June 13, 2017 at 1:30 p.m.

    Agreed, Bob. Player development is an extremely complex subject. The intricacies can be expanded well past even the several things that you emphasized.

  17. Daniel Clifton, June 13, 2017 at 8:52 a.m.

    Bob has hit the nail on the head as far as development is concerned. Ball skills can be developed by anyone, regardless of ethnic background, such as Pulisic. This is where PG really gets it wrong. Why not mention Josh Sargent. Is this young guy not skillful. Paul Berry is right about the US approach in Azteca. They sacrificed offense to have a defensive plan to stop Mexico. It worked, but also took the flare out of an offense that looked good in previous home matches. How can you get excited when Mexico had a possession edge of 70 to 30 percent. To me that is unacceptable.

  18. Scott Johnson replied, June 13, 2017 at 2:33 p.m.

    When Mexico only scores one goal (and that on a counter and has few shots quality shots, that's a good thing. The US parked the bus--that means THEY ARE CONCEDING POSSESSION. And for a large part, Mexico dominated possession, but mostly in the middle third. To create dangerous chances, you need possession and position; and parking the bus is a deliberate strategy to concede the former in order to deny the latter.

  19. Fire Paul Gardner Now replied, June 13, 2017 at 3:08 p.m.

    Mexico had 70% possession and the US actually had the better chances. I am a RBNY supporter and I have seen plenty of games this year where we have upwards of 60% possession and do nothing with it.

  20. Zabivaka Sobaka replied, June 13, 2017 at 10:16 p.m.

    At Azteca USMNT played most meaningful game in the past few years. It was not like against Belgium at World Cup. It was very well thought through tactically and executed almost perfectly by players on the field. I found it very entertaining. I never was a big Arena fan and I applaud him for this game. Klinsmann is gone...he's done his work and Arena seems to take it over in the right direction. Possession is not everything and sometime meaningless...take Leicester as an example. We are onto something here....or at least it make me feel that way

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