Gansler has enjoyed watching this U-20 World Cup from his home in Milwaukee, especially because he has connections with the USA’s head coach, Tab Ramos, and his three assistant coaches: Brian Bliss, Curt Onalfo and Dave van den Bergh.
“All four of those guys, we shared some time together,” says Gansler, who turns 78 in July. “All four of those guys are good people.”
Gansler had coached Ramos on the USA team that broke a 40-year World Cup drought when it reached Italia ’90. When Ramos became USA’s U-20 coach, tasked with qualifying it for the 2013 U-20 World Cup, he reached out to Gansler.
“It was a marvelous feeling,” says Gansler. “Maybe somewhere along the line I did something, said something, indicated something that made some sense for him.”
Ramos took the U-20 helm after the USA failed to reach the 2011 U-20 World Cup. At the 2013 qualifying tournament in Mexico, the USA faced Canada with U-20 World Cup spot at stake.
“Fortunately, we had someone like Bob Gansler with us, who had experience at the highest level of the World Cup,” said Ramos. “When he came up to me before the game in the locker room and shook my hand, and said to me: ‘You have these guys ready’ -- that’s all I needed to hear.”
The USA beat Canada, 4-2. Ramos also brought Gansler along to U-20 World Cup in Turkey.
“I was just an extra set of eyes,” Gansler said. “An extra set of ears. I have no idea what he thought I was. I felt honored to be there. I tried to make sure I didn’t get in the way. If I saw something that made sense, maybe I indicated that.”
Ramos remembers consulting Gansler on various issues, and appreciating his guidance early in his national team coaching career. This U-20 World Cup in Poland is Ramos’ fourth at the helm. By beating France in the round of 16, the USA became the only 2019 quarterfinalist that also reached the final eight of the previous two U-20 World Cups.
The big goal in the last three decades has been to match the semifinal appearance achieved by Gansler’s 1989 team, whose sweeper was Onalfo.
Bliss, like Ramos, played for Gansler at the 1990 World Cup -- and served as Gansler’s assistant in Kansas City for six years, including during its MLS Cup winning season of 2000.
The Dutchman Van den Bergh arrived in the USA in 2006, having been lured to MLS by Gansler and Bliss.
When Gansler pursued Van den Bergh, who ended up playing in MLS until 2009 before settling in Dallas, the Ajax youth product was playing for Spain's Rayo Vallecano. One of Van den Bergh's teammate at Rayo was goalkeeper Kasey Keller, who won the Silver Ball at the 1989 U-20 World Cup.
Bliss, who roomed with Ramos at the 1990 World Cup, was coaching the A-League Connecticut Wolves when Gansler got the Kansas City job and invited Bliss to join him.
Gansler first encountered Onalfo when he was playing youth and ODP ball in Connecticut. Onalfo was playing for Bruce Arena at the University of Virginia when he joined the U-20s at the World Cup.
"At Virginia, he played holding midfielder," Gansler said. "And when I asked him to play sweeper on that team in ‘89, that was a demotion in his mind, initially.
"But I said, 'Hey you’re still a defensive midfielder, just a little deeper.' Physically he was not over-equipped, but technically he was certainly good. He knew the game, read the game, and all of that, and was an ideal fit, with Troy Dayak and Cam Rast in front of him. They were physical specimens in terms of speed and power. It was a nice blend. I said maybe other guys play seven yards behind them, why don’t you play 10 or 11 yards back. And Lothar Osiander at the 1992 Olympics used him the same way, as a deep sweeper, because there he could be a playmaker and it gave us a lot, even though initially he had to be convinced."
U.S. captain Neil Covone (right) and Brazil's Leonardo (who five years later at the 1994 World Cup was ejected for elbowing Tab Ramos in Brazil's 1-0 win over the USA) before Brazil beat the USA, 2-0, in the third-place game at the 1989 U-20 World Cup. The USA beat Iraq (2-1) in quarterfinals and lost to Nigeria (2-1) in overtime in the semifinals. Both Iraq and Nigeria were later sanctioned by FIFA for using overage players.
It didn't surprise Gansler that Onalfo, Bliss or Van den Bergh went into coaching. But he didn't predict Ramos' success on the sidelines.
"Somehow, for the most brilliant players, coaching doesn't usually seem to work out," Gansler says. "Tab was so talented, and so far above so many. Tab was not a guy to dump on people, but you’d see it in his eye. Sort of like, 'Why the hell can’t he do that? Why the hell can’t he see me?' But he's proved to be a marvelous coach."
The USA also played France at the 2013 World Cup, and pulled off a 1-1 tie. That French team went on to win the title and its lineup included four players who ended up on France's 2018 World Cup championship team: Paul Pogba, Samuel Umtiti, Florian Thauvin and Alphonse Areola.
"Now six years later and we have grown, the country has grown, the player pool has grown, the talent pool has grown," Gansler says. "Tabby was good then but it’s like wine, and he’s gotten better with age, too."