Upon retiring in 2002 after a 14-year pro career, the U.S. Hall of Famer founded NJSA 04 (now part of the Cedar Stars Academy) where he coached at each age group. He coached NJSA 04 Gunners to the U-14 U.S. Youth Soccer national title in 2008. We spoke to Ramos in the wake of U.S. Soccer ending its Development Academy and MLS announcing it would run a similar youth league.
SOCCER AMERICA: How has the return to practice been?
TAB RAMOS: Sessions require lots of planning and organizing. You have to plan how you’re going to use the quarter of the field, organize the movement of players coming in and out, and the sequence. We have to get extremely creative to get sessions in. The important part is that everyone is safe and that the players are happy to be there.
SA: What are some of the things you've been doing to keep the team connected during the pandemic interruption?
TAB RAMOS: Video conferencing has been the norm as in just about every other business. We have alternated weeks, one week working on tactics and the next on team building. Sometimes we, the coaches, lead the sessions and sometimes it is the players doing most of the talking. We have been learning about each other and have become a stronger group of people together. This will help us when we return to play.
SA: What was your reaction to U.S. Soccer pulling out of the DA?
TAB RAMOS: I was surprised. The girls academy had just started and was not going well at all. I think that the boys were affected by that. Internally for the last couple of years the DA had become a mess, it was hard to say who the leader was. Decisions were random and you never knew where they came from. The timing of this decision shows the complete lack of experience in this space. This is the time of year when clubs have to panic about where they're playing next season.
All the parents are wondering what is happening and what it means. They worry about where their kids will play, etc. It was a very quick "we are done, good bye." Some clubs put their own existence on the line to follow the DA, they were owed much more. A decision such as this has to be made either a year in advance or at the very latest in December of the year before with the proper guidance on what is next.
And it wasn't just the clubs. It also left coaches on the street. Coaches who spent thousands on their coaching education to be part of the DA. Obviously, it's important for any coach to be as educated as possible because that helps you to become a better coach, but it's hard to recover your investment coaching youth soccer. Licenses are very expensive.
SA: How do you feel about MLS launching a youth league, basically taking over what U.S. Soccer was doing by including the non-MLS clubs that had been in the DA?
TAB RAMOS: It's very exciting. MLS clubs now have the opportunity to grow on all the steps forward that the DA had taken. The inclusion of amateur clubs is key. Amateur clubs are the backbone of soccer in this country, they are the ones who reach into the deepest corners of the player pool.
SA: The Boys DA launched in 2007. You became U.S. Soccer Youth Technical Director in 2013 and put in charge of the youth national team program while also coaching the U-20s. What were the positives about the DA?
TAB RAMOS: Obviously, there's been a lot of positive with the Development Academy. No credit at all goes to me. I didn't make any of the decisions that had anything to do with the DA.
The Development Academy changed the soccer landscape on and off the field. Players and their parents understand the value of training 4 to 5 times per week and coaches understand the value of coaching education and continuing to evolve as a coach.
When I scouted a game in the Development Academy, I knew that, even if all coaches are different -- I knew that there was was a purpose to their team. I would assume most coaches put in the time to self-reflect and learn but if a coach has a C, B or A license you know they are putting in the time. If you're learning, you're going to be much better at teaching. This process has become the norm and that is major progress.
In the past, it was just a free-for-all. Anybody could coach a team. You had people who have never been around the game at all who were coaching at high levels just because they were able to recruit good players.
And the training: If you wanted to be a Development Academy club, you had to have a minimum number of practices a week. Setting minimum standards is important because now you have qualified coaches and good players training four days a week. We didn't have that before. This was very good planning and somebody deserves credit for that because these are all great ideas.
SA: Negatives of the DA?
TAB RAMOS: Forcing all clubs to sell the fact that now high school soccer is not important anymore and how important it is for elite players to only do it this way. Every part of the country can do things right and still incorporate their own twist that works for them. The decision to not allow players to play high school soccer was made before I came on. I personally would never have supported that, there is so much value to some high school rivalries.
Tab Ramos, who at age 16 played for the USA at the 1983 U-20 World Cup, guided the USA to the quarterfinals of the last three World Cups and to its first ever Concacaf titles, in 2017 and 2019.
SA: U.S. Soccer also restricted other outside play.
TAB RAMOS: The DA was overprotective about where you can play. I personally didn't see the damage for a DA player, who didn't play that weekend to get double-carded (to be registered in another league) and play for his club with another team that is not in the DA. How is that hurting the players?
This did not affect the players who played every minute, which are very few, five or six on each team -- but it was difficult for the other 20 players on the roster. They went through years of barely playing any games. Can't imagine this helped them at all.
It should have been some sort of open door. You can play on other teams if you don't play in the DA. No problem. As long as you're there for your academy, coming to training, and you're available for the games. Why is there a limit on how much kids can play?
SA: Do you think the DA's one size fits all approach may not have been optimal for a country as large and diverse as the USA? That clubs in Southern California may be suited for a different approach than, say, clubs in Michigan?
TAB RAMOS: I think you can have both. Be in a development academy under its rules, but then you can also play on other teams. And if you want to travel, you travel. If in Michigan you can only play so many months out of the year, that shouldn't mean that a team in California now can only have a schedule the same as a team in Michigan. Those kids in California should be playing the whole year if they can, even if it's on other teams. If their club has teams outside of the DA, which most do, because it's the only way to generate income, they can play on those other teams. Go travel and play against other teams or play locally. But play more, not less.
SA: Besides the travel restrictions that will be forced on youth soccer from the coronavirus impact, there's been concern there's too much travel in American youth soccer. Is there a right balance?
TAB RAMOS: I coached from U-9 on, and the travel started at U-11, to about U-16 or U-17. You can go anywhere: Phoenix for President's Cup, Dallas Cup, Jefferson Cup in Virginia, etc, etc. Those are all great experiences for players. What is wrong with that? Teams are going outside of their area competing to win against teams from all over the country. This is bad?
There is no pill and there is no system for developing great players, no one in the entire world has the formula for that, no matter how much money they spend. But one thing is for sure, all great players have played and played and played.
SA: How would you like the MLS youth league to approach these issues?
TAB RAMOS: What I'm hoping for is that MLS continues the same trend as DA in terms of coaching education, in terms of the quality of the training sessions, and also the fact that coaches are accountable for their teams and putting their training plans together.
But I hope that we can open the door to alternative competitions outside of whatever that MLS league is, because I think that that will be helpful to the players. Maybe the elite players don't need that because they'll be playing every single minute of their MLS team games. But maybe the players who don't play as much could use that. So I just hope that the door is open to other players being able to compete outside of it.
SA: What do you think the coaching license requirement should be -- especially considering the expense and challenges of getting the B license? (There had already been, pre-COVID shutdown, complaints of not enough openings in U.S. Soccer courses.)
TAB RAMOS: I don't know what it needs to be. I know that the better license you have, the more you've exposed yourself to coaching education and to learning new things. I can't say an A license coach is necessarily better than a D license coach, but I can tell you the A license coach was more likely exposed to good soccer education. That's really important.
SA: It did seem absurd U.S. Soccer didn't deem its own C license good enough for coaching even U-14s or U-13s.
TAB RAMOS: The C license course is the first very difficult one. Does it make a difference between a C or a B? I don't know. I can tell you if I was hiring a youth club coach I don't mind hiring a D or C license coach knowing that he wants to do more, he wants to learn more and he wants to go to the next one. But I also know that that comes with a price. Either the club has to pay for that or someone has to help them with that. Most people who are coaching full time in the youth game cannot just afford to spend five, ten thousand dollars on a license.
Tab Ramos' 11 world championships
SA: How is the Houston Dynamo youth program set up? Besides the Houston Dynamo academy team that will play in the MLS league and there's Dynamo/Dash Youth, which will field teams in ECNL Boys ...
TAB RAMOS: Houston is huge. Greater Houston is about seven million people. It's basically a country. A player who lives 15 or 20 miles away from our training facility could be two hours at the time he needs to get there. So it's difficult to have all players train in your facility and everyone in one place.
[Dynamo Academy director] Paul Holocher has done a great job in creating good relationships with clubs. Dynamo/Dash Youth is our affiliate that covers most areas all around Houston, the best players get channeled from there around the age of 14 or 15 into our Houston Dynamo Professional Academy that is based right next to our first team.
SA: What do you think about the inclination, which seemed stronger than ever in the past few years, of U.S. Soccer adopting models and methods from other countries?
TAB RAMOS: A lot of times in this country, it seems like if we're not copying somebody else, we're not doing the right thing. You get a lot of opposition if you're trying to implement something and you can't say, this is how they do it Germany, or in England or in the Netherlands. I'd like to think we've grown as a sport in this country that we can make decisions without having to do that.
We should look at what the best countries are doing but we need to apply what fits us.
Photos: Bryan Sales/Houston Dynamo, Mike Woitalla