NEW YORK — Preparing for his fourth U-20 World Cup, US U-20 national team head coach Tab Ramos faced a roster selection more difficult than any he'd previously encountered. Not the worst predicament to be in.
Ramos used to lament the lack of professional minutes the U-20 eligible players were getting, but now more than a few players regularly representing their clubs were left behind when Ramos announced his roster on Friday.
There were tough decisions to make. Some players burst onto the scene late and have earned regular professional minutes in recent months, like FC Dallas rising star Edwin Cerrillo, giving Ramos further headaches.
Cerrillo has yet to represent the US U-20 side, but signed a Homegrown deal with Dallas ahead of this season and forced his way into the squad, making seven starts this season. That sparkling club form launched him into Ramos' plans for the U-20 World Cup, overcoming great obstacles to do be named to the World Cup roster.
“This is the difficult part because our preparation is very short," Ramos said at a media roundtable on Friday. "It was very difficult for me to take players I didn’t know well personally. When you take a player that’s going to help you on the field, you want him to make the team better off the field. That’s the spirit this team has and I didn’t want to lose that by changing guys. At the same guys, I want to be fair with the guys who deserve to go. Edwin clearly showed by his display in Dallas that he deserved to go.”
Cerrillo played his way into Ramos' squad recently | USA Today Sports Images
Ramos raved not only about Cerrillo's technical ability, but his athleticism as well.
“His ability to cover ground," Ramos explained as one of his best attributes. "Physically the level he’s at, what I’ve been told, he’s off the charts a little bit. For the international game, your main concern is always preparing for the transition. When you get to play the best European and South American teams, the transition is crazy fast.”
Another player who didn't feature at the U-20 Concacaf Championship in November was Tim Weah, who has already made eight appearances with the senior roster. The 19-year-old wasn't included in Gregg Berhalter's most recent squad for March friendlies ahead of the Gold Cup this summer.
“Tim really wanted to participate in the U-20 World Cup," Ramos said. "When you have a player really looking forward to a competition that he really believes is important to him, that makes it easier.”
Weah is on loan at Celtic, who have released him for national duty despite having the Scottish Cup final coming in two weeks.
Ramos indicated that he really likes Weah as a center forward, but being that he's likely to project as a winger with the senior national team, that he'll spend most of his time wide at the U-20 World Cup.
“It means a lot to me that [Weah] trusts the program to come back to it and be willing to participate," Ramos said. "At the same time, it means a lot to the other guys. ... Some players may [see him as a leader], but I don’t want to put it on his shoulders. I just want Tim to come in, be happy and play. That’s what this is about. Happy players play well.”
It's not only happy players that play well, healthy ones do too.
Ramos was handed a few injury scares ahead of the tournament, with Paxton Pomykal and Mark McKenzie both unavailable in recent weeks with injures but were selected anyway, expected to be fit for the tournament.
Pomykal comes into camp with an injury | USA Today Sports Images
“I’m still worried," Ramos admitted. "Paxton and Konrad [de la Fuente] have had muscular injuries over the last few weeks. Your concern is not that they’re not going to make it in time, it’s that is there going to a reoccurrence? Will they be in good form at the time they start to play?”
“Chris is likely the player, with Tim, who has had the most growth from the U-17 World Cup until now," Ramos said. "A couple of things about his game that needed to improve was his distribution. I like whoever plays as a No. 6, I don’t just want a defender. I want someone who can play. I think he’s improved tremendously in that part of the game, the technical part of his ability to switch play and keep the ball. I think hell make our team better.”
With the difficult roster selections now behind him, Ramos is excited about this tournament and the future.
“Players are becoming more and more competitive, players are fighting for time with their first teams," Ramos said. "It’s a great place to be in, it’s where we wanted to be a few years ago.”