Interview: Tab Ramos on his young team that dictated play at the U-20 World Cup

The USA is the only nation that has reached the quarterfinals of the last three U-20 World Cups. At the recently completed U-20 World Cup in Poland, the Tab Ramos-coached USA fielded the fourth youngest team among the 24 participants, after Senegal, Tahiti, Mali. It also had the lowest median age of a U.S. team at the biennial tournament since 1983, when Ramos was a 16-year-old on a squad that included Hugo Perez and Paul Caligiuri. Ramos has coached the USA at the last four U-20 World Cups. In Poland, the USA's three victories included a comeback win over favorite France.

After the USA opened with a 2-1 loss to Ukraine, it beat Nigeria, 2-0, and Qatar, 1-0, to finish second in Group D. The USA beat France, 3-2, in the round of 16, then  fell, 2-1, in the quarterfinals to Ecuador, which finished third while Ukraine lifted the title on Saturday with a 3-1 win over South Korea.

SOCCER AMERICA: Is the fact your team's two losses came against the teams that finished first and third significant?

TAB RAMOS: Not for us, because I believed in our team and I thought we were as good as anyone.

SA: What are your general impressions about the USA's performance?

TAB RAMOS: Great. I'm very happy with the team. I'm not big about speaking to teams after the game in the locker room. I like for everyone to cool off and have their own thoughts. And then we meet at the hotel after games.

But after the Ukraine game [the 2-1 Group D opening loss] was really the only time when I spoke to the team in the locker room in last eight years. What I said to the team was that I was really happy with how they played and to keep their heads up. Because we would likely not lose another game and we would meet Ukraine again.

And that's what I thought would happen. I know it was going to be a hard way, but I just thought we had the team to be able to get through tournament. But then again, there were others who had a great team to get through the tournament.

The fact that we got this far and the fact that we were as competitive as anyone, and that we could have won, I think that's just the beginning. When this thing starts out, it's 200 teams [aiming to qualify for the 24-team tournament]. Many nations have teams that can win it: Brazil, Spain, Germany, France, Argentina, Uruguay, Belgium ... And at the end, only one team wins.

Just because you have a team that's capable, it doesn't mean you're always going to do it. Now we're here, and that's a good thing. I think we're starting to knock on the door and I think that's a really good sign. I'm really happy about that.

SA: Hindsight is 20-20, but are there any tactical choices or player selections you've reevaluated?

TAB RAMOS: You're always reevaluating after every game, but every game plays out differently. That's the great thing about soccer. Just when you think you're counting on something to happen, it can change, and you have to react to the things that change. Knowing everything we know, I think it would be not smart to say I would do things exactly the same, because then the outcome would be exactly the same. I would likely change something had the opponent given us what I know now they gave us.

But our preparation was very good. I'm very happy with the way we prepared. And I'm happy with the team selection. So at this point I can only think from where I was at the moment and I think we picked the right team.

SA: One had the impression that Josh Sargent wasn't on the U-20 World Cup roster because he was going to be with the full national team for the Gold Cup, but Gregg Berhalter ended up not naming Sargent to the Gold Cup roster. Should he have been with the U-20s?

TAB RAMOS: I don't know, because that's a question I think you need to ask Josh. I know that Tim Weah really wanted to be with the U-20s and he was the first one to push for it. And I think it was a value to Tim, because he did really well. He showed his quality at the tournament and that was great. ... I had a conversation Gregg and I selected the guys who were available.

SA: How would you rate this year's team to the 2017 team, which also reached the quarterfinals?

TAB RAMOS: I think we were a better team this time because unlike the other times, every game we played this time, we played it under our rules, we played our game. With past teams we did just as well results-wise, but we didn't dictate like we did this time. ... And we were a really young team. We had only one 99 [Paxton Pomykal] on the field against Ecuador.

[Editor's note: Players born in 1999 or later were eligible for the 2019 U-20 World Cup. The USA's roster comprised of six players born in 1999, 12 born in 2000, three born in 2001.]

SA: In the quarterfinals you played a France team that was one of only two teams at the tournament to go 3-0-0 in group play, the next generation of players from reigning senior World Cup champions, with a roster valued at $200 million. How'd you make sure your players were confident?

TAB RAMOS: We obviously had seen France play and they have special players in every position. If you look one-by-one, I wasn't going to lie to our players and say France wasn't the best team in the U-20 World Cup, because they were, player by player. But I also know France doesn't win the U-20 World Cup every time. They lose to somebody, and that's what I told the players. That France is going to have that game that they lose, and it might as well be to us, because we're ready for it.

SA: Did playing them in a friendly, a 2-2 tie, before the tournament help?

TAB RAMOS: It helped a lot, actually, because we knew we were going to be successful with our press against them. I think they probably didn't expect us to do it in a World Cup game. They probably thought we did it because it was a friendly game a couple months before the World Cup.

2019 U-20 WORLD CUP RESULTS (possession)
USA 1 Ukraine 2 (60%/40%)
USA 2 Nigeria 0 (54%/46%)
USA 1 Qatar 0 (52%/48%)
USA 3 France 2 (42%/58%)
USA 1 Ecuador 2 (54%/46%)

SA: Which U.S. players fared particularly well in the tournament?

TAB RAMOS: We definitely had three players that I thought could start for every team at the World Cup. One being Chris Richards in the back, Paxton Pomykal [in midfield] and Tim Weah [upfront]. I think those three guys could have started for any team in that World Cup. And then you have other guys. Alex Mendez didn't play his best but obviously he's very good. You have Chris Gloster, who's very good until the last game. Sergino Dest was a little bit up and down, but when he's at his best, he can play for anyone. But those three guys consistently can play for anyone.

SA: If we agree that the current generation of American teenagers -- based international results and the increasing number who are signing pro contracts at a young age -- is showing more potential than ever, what do you attribute that to?

TAB RAMOS: It's what the academies are doing. They're training five to six days a week. A lot of the clubs even provide the proper nutrition guidance, they have the High Performance program, so the players are better prepared physically. They're better prepared mentally. They're used to being in a more difficult environment. It's a world of difference from 10, 14 years ago to where we are know. The players are much better prepared when they come into the national teams.

SA: What about the benefits of young players playing with and against adults more often, whether it's breaking into first teams, playing for MLS clubs' USL affiliates, or spending time practicing with the first team?

TAB RAMOS: That's huge, to be in an environment where they're playing against men more often. Using their bodies, fighting for every ball. That helps a lot.

SA: You were in Florida during the Concacaf U-17 Championship at which the USA qualified for the 2019 U-17 World Cup with a runner-up finish to Mexico. What's your impression of that team?

TAB RAMOS: I think we have a really good team. I think we're going to do well at the World Cup [in October] because we have a lot of talent on that team. And the more time Rafa [Raphael Wicky] has with them I think they'll understand him better and the team will get better.

SA: The players made a smooth adjustment to Coach Raphael Wicky, who was hired less than two months before the tournament after this cycle of U-17s had three different coaches?

TAB RAMOS: The team was already used to playing exactly the way they played. They played 4-3-3. Dave van den Bergh had it that way. Shaun Tsakiris had it that way, and John Hackworth before that.

SA: Your contract with U.S. Soccer runs through 2021. Do you see yourself coaching the USA in a fifth U-20 World Cup, in 2021?

TAB RAMOS: That's my contract. It's been four amazing U-20 cycles so far. I'm happy in my job. I believe I have been making a difference and have moved the youth national team program forward. Having said that, in this business you never know.

Team Photo: FIFA via Getty Images. Back row (L-to-R): Brady Scott, Aboubacar Keita, Tim Weah, Chris Durkin, Chris Richards; Front row: Paxton Pomykal, Konrad De la Fuente, Alex Mendez, Sergino Dest, Chris Gloster, Brandon Servania.

14 comments about "Interview: Tab Ramos on his young team that dictated play at the U-20 World Cup".
  1. Peter Bechtold, June 18, 2019 at 1:31 p.m.

    Good piece; your coverage brought back memories. As a coach at a lower level I always followed these youth teams going back to 1983. During a conversation with Alkis Panagoulias(RIP), I told him about Hugo Perez as a possible play-maker for his 1984 Olympic team. It happened and I am pleased that Hugo Perez apparently got a new job recently with the USSF.

  2. Wooden Ships replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:54 a.m.

    What position did Hugo land?

  3. Wooden Ships, June 19, 2019 at 12:58 a.m.

    Soto showed well, however, both Tab and Berhalter have no answer on the Sargent situation. One or both of you man up and provide some clarification. This country has not produced, basically squat, for strikers in over 20 years and here’s a guy that has a complete set of skills and doesn’t appear in either feature. Damn sad.

  4. frank schoon replied, June 19, 2019 at 9:21 a.m.

     Ships ,that's what I got out of this sorry interview. Ramos and GB must have had discussed Sargent. GB made known his reason for not choosing Sargent but Ramos didn't clarify why he didn't pick Sargent ...Ramos was wishy-washy on this subject. Ramos punted. Was he told by BG not to pick Sargent or was it Ramos that didn't want Sargent. Sargent should have been picked on Ramos team... what a waste not to pick him. 
    This incident tells me further that Ramos has no backbone , no bite, is very politically correct. I definitely don't see him leading the USMNT as coach....very disappointed!!!!!

  5. don Lamb replied, June 19, 2019 at 10:38 a.m.

    Try reading between the lines..... Tab said that you would have to ask Sargent. Then he said that Weah really wanted to be there. The implication is that Sargent chose to fight for a spot on the Gold Cup roster instead of going to Poland or that he flat out didn't want to go to the U20 World Cup (maybe because he wants to focus on Bremem at this important time in his professional career or because he has already played in a U20 WC.).

  6. Wooden Ships replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:14 p.m.

    Good points Don. 

  7. Bob Ashpole replied, June 19, 2019 at 1:47 p.m.

    It isn't that simple. Release for the U20 team is not manadatory for clubs under FIFA regulations. Release for the Gold Cup would be if the coach requested. Usually this has some bearing on negotiations with clubs. I expect that clubs would be very upset and unagreeable if a player was called up for the senior team and then played at the U20 competition instead.

  8. Eugene Chang, June 19, 2019 at 11:59 a.m.

    If you just read between the lines a bit, it seems that Josh Sargent did not want to play for the U-20s, while Tim Weah did want to play for the U-20s. That's why Ramos says you have to ask Josh.

    It makes sense because Sargent has already played at the U-20 World Cup and he's looking for a bigger mountain to climb. 

  9. Wooden Ships replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:19 p.m.

    You and Don interpreted it similarly. I can see working for the spot at his club, what I can’t see is Berhalter favoring Zardes, Altidore and/or Morris. 

  10. frank schoon replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:29 p.m.

    Eugene, we  don't know what really happened for Ramos was not very clear at all. Ramos should have stated in a very direct way that Sargent didn't want to play U20 and that he wanted to rest or whatever. The manner of Ramos explanation leaves me to think there were other things in play. 
    Why hasn't SA contacted Sargent and let him explain

  11. Ginger Peeler replied, June 19, 2019 at 12:57 p.m.

    Don and Eugene, forgive us...sometimes we struggle with reading comprehension and we claim things were said that really weren’t. But we mean well. 

  12. Seth Vieux replied, June 19, 2019 at 8:28 p.m.

    It seems very clear to me that Sargent chose not to play U20s. He sure wouldn't be crazy to think he was a near lock to make the GC roster considering his competition. Can't blame Ramos for not taking a player who wasn't vailable to him, won't blame Sargent for choosing to play for a GC spot, will ABSOLUTELY blame GB for taking the likes of Zardes and Morris over Sargent. His '2 deep at every spot' is a joke as well. If that's more important than the development of the kid with the most potential as a true striker we've seen since McBride.... good god. And if having Zardes on the squad for some ridiculous loyalty reasons was unavoidable then send his sorry but back out to the wing over Morris and take Sargent and Altidore as your strikers.

  13. Kevin Leahy, June 19, 2019 at 6:16 p.m.

    Tab shouldn't really shouldn't be talking for players and will always have to walk a fine line with the federation and the senior team coach. The fact of the matter is taking Gyasi, Jozy & Jordan over Josh.

  14. Scholes Scholes, June 21, 2019 at 7:16 a.m.

    Awesome...keep it going Tab

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