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 Subtlety and artistry had been replaced by power and athleticism.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.