US national team legend Tab Ramos is just a little more than a week away from what will effectively be his debut as a head coach in the national spotlight.
But for Ramos, a successful youth soccer coach and a former assistant for the Under-17s and Under-20s, this first go-round during the 2013 FIFA Under-20 World Cup qualifying tournament at the helm of the USA will likely be more heavily scrutinized than usual given the recent failures of other US youth national teams.
The 2011 US Under-20 team and the 2012 Olympic team were both eliminated in the CONCACAF qualifying stage.
"I really don’t feel like we need to carry that responsibility, for our players more than anything else," Ramos said on a media conference call from Toluca, Mexico, where his team is already settled ahead of the first match against Haiti on Feb. 18. "At this point, we need a good result and want this team to do well, but there's no added responsibility with this group."
Ramos named his squad on Friday, featuring 18 players with two more players to be named in the coming days. Five hail from Major League Soccer (Colorado's Shane O'Neill, RSL's Luis Gil, Crew's Wil Trapp, SKC's Mikey Lopez and LA's Jose Villarreal pictured above), but the player who made news for his absence was Liverpool's Marc Pelosi.
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The midfielder was named to the EPL side's Europa League roster and with the competition resuming its knockout round on Feb. 14, Pelosi was not named to the Under-20 qualifying squad. But Ramos is still holding out hope he could yet join them.
"Marc is a great player and because of that he has many other opportunities that other players don't have," Ramos said. "With this Europa League call-up, his release became more difficult than it has been. I wouldn't want to say it's a closed door. … We'll work on that in the next couple of days."
Working on player releases is the most challenging job of any US Under-20 coach with foreign clubs under no obligation to grant the release. It's tough enough that Ramos doesn't have FC Dallas draftee Walker Zimmerman and Birmingham City's Will Packwood, two massive injury absences at central defense.
"I don't think there's been one camp this year of the eight [camps] that I can tell you we were able to get every player we wanted," Ramos said. "We're in the same scenario. I feel comfortable that the players here are the best we can get and the ones we prepared the most. We feel confident that these guys are going to do a good job."
So what kind of style can we expect from a Ramos side? He says he has not been dictated a formation by USMNT senior team manager Jurgen Klinsmann. But as far as the players he has identified, they're not too dissimilar from the player Ramos was during his 81 caps with the senior US team: good in possession and confident on the ball.
"Players who we said from the beginning want to make a difference in the game and want to make things happen and are not afraid to have the ball at their feet when it matters," Ramos said of his squad selection. "I expect us to be a possession team and I expect us to have the ball and hopefully that will be our formula to win the game."
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Ramos, who was the first-ever MLS player signed to a contract back in 1995 (read about the handshake deal here), is also the first US Under-20 head coach who has played for the the team. In fact, he featured at the Under-20 World Cup back in 1983.
That experience may wind up giving his team the greatest chance at success. Ramos, who says he expects there to be "a lot of suffering on the field" during the upcoming qualifying tournament, is already aware of the gamesmanship, the time-wasting and the heat that can affect matches against CONCACAF opposition. The senior squad got a taste of that in its World Cup qualifying loss at Honduras in midweek.
"My main concern is how we're going to react to the games and react to situations," Ramos said. "How we react to those situations is going to be key for us in this tournament."
Ramos exhibited a little gamesmanship of his own during Friday's media conference call, refusing to share details regarding tactics. But what he does know is that his familiarity with Klinsmann's camps has convinced him that we'll be seeing players from his Under-20 team -- "Different from players on the first team," Ramos pointed out -- shaping up to get a look on the senior side, specifically making mention of Benji Joya (Santos Laguna), Mario Rodriguez (Kaiserslautern), Daniel Cuevas (Santos Laguna), Trapp and Villarreal.
"I think we have very good players here and in particular on the offensive side of the ball," Ramos said. "The offensive players they make you feel they're ready for the next level. I'm comfortable with the group from the midfield going forward and for this particular age group we've selected players who are very comfortable on the ball and will be valuable down the road.
"If they can have a good tournament in situations like this, I think Jurgen will take notice because he will be watching."