United States Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos is ahead of the game. He's already traveled down to the Caribbean to scout Haiti, the Americans' opening-match opponent in next February's CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which also doubles as the region's World Cup qualifying tournament.
And he knows that Costa Rica, the other team drawn into Group A with the US and Haiti at Wednesday's draw in Puebla, Mexico, will be what he calls "a tough opponent," having been to the last three World Cups.
“It’s not easy, but it’s never easy," he said in an interview with USsoccer.com on Wednesday. "My thought is that we have to prepare well. We have good opponents in our group."
The top four teams at the Championship in Puebla will book tickets to the World Cup taking place in Turkey in June and July. The US, who have appeared in the World Cup 13 times, famously failed to qualify in 2011 after losing to Guatemala in the quarterfinals. Ramos was an assistant to manager Thomas Rongen on that 2011 squad.
“It was certainly disappointing," Ramos said. "I want to make sure that, in particular, for this group, we have been and will continue to spell out how important it would be for them to participate in the Under-20 World Cup and to showcase themselves to the world. None of that can happen if we don’t have a great tournament [in Mexico].”
The U-20s, who participated in the Marbella Cup last month, will hold a training camp in mid-December then head to Mexico for final preparations in mid-January, Ramos said. Whether that training strategy helps remains to be seen, but Ramos, perhaps more than any previous U-20 coach, will at least have the experience of having played for the US U-20s to draw from when preparing his players.
“I’ve been fortunate to have the experience of being on a U-20 qualifying team going to the World Cup and on my second cycle on a U-20 team that did not qualify for the World Cup," he said. "I know the feeling on both sides. I know that it is always difficult and you have to do the best you can all the way through to the last minute.”