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Exclusive Q&A

Tab Ramos Opens Up About The U-20 National Team

American Soccer Now columnist Brian Sciaretta spoke at length with U.S. Youth Technical Director Tab Ramos about the current U-20 training camp being held in Florida.
BY Brian Sciaretta Posted
January 09, 2014
12:15 PM

THE UNITED STATES U-20 men's team is currently assembled in Lakewood Ranch, Florida for its first camp of the year and second of the new cycle. CONCACAF qualifying for the 2015 U-20 World Cup in New Zealand is still more than a year away and U.S. head coach Tab Ramos is in the long process of trying to identify players who he believes can help the team moving forward.

ASN’s Brian Sciaretta spoke with Ramos to discuss how the camp is going so far.

Sciaretta: How is everything going with camp so far? What are your early assessments of the large group of players? Is it mostly just talent evaluation at this point?

Ramos: It’s really just trying to get an overall feel for the talent of this age group. It’s not so much about the training sessions but more about keeping guys fresh so that they can play. We had an inter-squad game [on Monday] then we play a college combine team on Thursday and we have another inter-squad game on Sunday. So it’s really about watching them play. Obviously we run some exercises so we can see their technical ability and those types of things. But with 36 guys it’s pretty much a try-out. How well the guys do this week is going to make a difference for us.

Sciaretta: At this stage of the cycle you really have to explore the talent you have. How big is the player pool right now and how tough is it to factor in players like Alonso Hernandez, who emerged late last cycle? How tough is it to build chemistry within a group while always looking out for new potential players?

Ramos: Actually we’re not here this week to build a team. We’re here more to identify good players and see how we can fit them into what we want to do and see how they adapt to what we do down the road. This week there were 13 guys that couldn’t make it either because of injury or club commitments. I don’t think that’s a bad thing necessarily. So with the 36 guys we have here and the 13 guys that couldn’t make it, we’ve gone 49 deep on our depth chart. We have about 60-62 guys that we’re looking at that are the first batch of guys—without thinking of who is going to emerge late.

One of the things we have to consider, that was a good example in the last group, where we’ve told the current group that this camp is important. What we see here is we have to compare with the 13 guys who are not here. So when we select our next camp it’s going to be a lot smaller–around 20. It seems like not so many will survive from here. So it’s going to be tough so make sure you have a good week.

If we’re going to compare it with an example from last cycle, a player like DeAndre Yedlin came in here early in the cycle and did not perform. It wasn’t until he went back and played in MLS after a full college season that we thought "Hey, I think we’re going to have to bring Yedlin back because he looks a lot different now than he did in January." For us to have to consider him again, it took 11 months for him to get back onto our radar. Unfortunately for us, this camp is so early in the cycle and for some guys it’s going to work out in the same way. We’ll see them now and we probably won’t see them again until they do really well elsewhere. For the guys that do well this week, they’ll continue with us from here, hopefully until the end.

Sciaretta: You have guys like Eric Lickert at Freiburg, Luis Felipe at Cruzeiro, and Saalih Muhammad at Dinamo GNK, they developed outside the typical American soccer development path. How extensive is your scouting network and how tough is it to rate these players before they come in?

Ramos: It’s difficult. We do have a good network of people to look at players. To give you a rundown: Eric Lickert we had already read about him from last year and [U.S. Soccer scout] Matthias Hamann has actually seen him play in Germany. We had a pretty good idea about how he plays the defensive midfield role, and that he’s done a good job there. So we didn’t just find the name somewhere and bring him in. We have seen him play.

In terms of Luis Felipe, it became very easy because it’s a name that came to us in summer 2013. I put him on my depth chart. I knew his club, Cruzeiro, was coming here to play in the IMG tournament in December and I sent Richie Williams down to watch him because his U-17 team was going to be playing in the same tournament. Richie watched him play and liked what he saw. After watching him for two or three games we decided to bring him in. To be honest, we’ve been pleasantly surprised. We think he’s a good player.

Sometimes it sounds like [player selections are] out of the blue but they’re usually on very good recommendations. Some of the guys we miss but I think in the times we miss are more because the players just don’t adapt when they come in. It’s normally not because they’re not good players.

Sciaretta: I know you just had an inter-squad scrimmage this week. How did that go? Were there any surprises and did it help you learn about the group?

Ramos: I don’t want to put certain guys ahead of other guys but I do know that in Luis Felipe’s case, obviously because we don’t know him and don’t see all the time, it was nice to see that he came in and fit right in. Especially as a 1996, making him a year younger, you’re always a little skeptical whether they’re going to be physically ready. I think he can help the team. I think that’s been a surprise at least to start the camp. He’s got very good feet and can go forward well, although he’s more of a defensive player.

I would say the other guys are not a surprise. Rubio Rubin continues to do well. Every camp he just looks better than the one before. He’s really turned out to be a very solid, professional-type player. Zach Pfeffer and Amando Moreno, these are guys I think we’re going to be able to count on for the full cycle. You don’t want to give people a free pass but these are guys who work very hard every practice, every game. I’m pretty comfortable saying these are guys we can probably count on for a while.

Sciaretta: How are you different as a coach this cycle and what have you learned about yourself coaching the U-20 team?

Ramos: I think I’m learning all the time. Coaching is a learning process so I don’t ever feel like I am “there.” I don’t want to say I am calmer. Obviously having more experience helps me but at the same time I’m very excited to be here and to have what I think is a good group of players. Having the patience—I think that’s very important the first six months. For the first few months this is not so much about building the team and tactics as it is about finding good players and then adding the two.

I got great experience with Thomas Rongen and having a cycle on my own. I don’t want to say “on my own” either because I always have great staff that helps a lot.

Sciaretta: As the Youth Technical Director for U.S. Soccer, are you going to be heavily involved with the upcoming Olympic Team?

Ramos: We continue to track those players but not so much from my Youth Technical Director role because what that entails is from the U-20s down more than from the U-20s up. But that was an age group I coached before. I’ve already spoken with [U.S. assistant coach] Martin Vazquez, who is going to begin to take the reins with that team. That will be somewhat of a U-21 team to start. We’re in the process of discussing all the players, the depth chart I’m leaving behind, the players who were injured. There were players that we didn’t have like Marc Pelosi, Will Packwood, and maybe John Brooks will be in the fold this time. Guys we really wanted. Maybe we can bring them in this time.

Sciaretta: The Youth Technical Director Role is an interesting job for you. What are the challenges you are facing with that in addition to coaching the U-20s?

Ramos: No. 1: to get all the youth national teams integrated a little bit better. I thought we had done a pretty good job in the past between the senior team and the U-23s and the U-20s and the U-18s. Now we go from the U-18s down to the U-17s and the U-15s and the U-14s, which is more of a challenge because the U-17s are a little bit different in their process than with everyone else. But I’ve already met with all the coaches so we’re all on the same page in terms of working together as a unit and seeing all of our youth teams are “our” teams rather than so much this is your team and this is somebody else’s team. We see this as the youth national teams just being part of the development process of all of our players that hopefully leads to Jurgen Klinsmann’s team.

Other parts of my job that I have to work with is the Development Academy and Tony Lepore making sure we’re doing the right things and continuing to provide the resources for them and implement new things that will make the players better, make them train more, and be more prepared for national teams. The coaching education part of it, which Jurgen will probably be more involved with but that I will help with, that’s with [U.S. Soccer Director of Coaching Development] Dave Chesler and developing our coaching education. There’s definitely a lot of work to do and I don’t think by any means it will get done in the next six months but we’re definitely working on everything.

Sciaretta: You said the next U-20 camp will be smaller. What is the upcoming schedule?

Ramos: We’re going to get together again in April. We are looking at the possibility of participating in the Dallas Cup. We will be a year younger because I believe the [Dallas Cup] Super Group will be a 1994 age group and since we are a 1995, 1996 birth year national team, it may be something that we are going to be interested in. That will be in April. So we can get some good games against some international teams.

We’re looking into traveling to Argentina in May, although that is not finalized yet. It will be South America somewhere. I think it will be great for us. We started the last cycle by going to Uruguay and Chile and that helped us a lot. We will go to the Milk Cup in July and then we will have another camp in October.

We’re hoping to host a big international match in December, with an opponent to be determined, but we’d like to get a big, quality opponent. And then in January [2015] we’ll know what the qualifying tournament will look like. At this point we don’t know where it will be, what it will look like, or what teams will be in it, so there’s a lot to be decided.

We do have a master schedule for the full year but that this point we’re just identifying players.

Brian Sciaretta is an American Soccer Now columnist and an ASN 100 panelist. Follow him on Twitter.

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