GUADALAJARA, Mexico – US Under-20 national team coach Tab Ramos is under no illusions: The task of guiding the team to the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey later this year is his most important challenge since the end of his decorated playing days.
“No question,” he admitted in a phone interview with MLSsoccer.com from Toluca on Wednesday evening. “I’m hoping to do well.”
Standing in Ramos and his squad’s way is the CONCACAF U-20 Championship starting on Monday in Puebla, Mexico, in which 12 of the region’s finest teams will battle it out for four places in Turkey this summer.
But while this may be his first real test as a head coach, the Uruguay-born, New Jersey-raised 46-year-old brings a level of experience from his playing days to the U-20s that few in US soccer circles can match and that should stand him in good stead.
Ramos played south of the border at Tigres UANL for two seasons, winning the Copa Mexico in 1996, while he was the first player to sign for MLS and featured for the full US national team in three different decades, having risen through the youth ranks.
Given his experience, Ramos has prioritized getting his players acclimatized to Mexican conditions, especially the altitude – Puebla is more than 7,000 feet above sea level. The US squad held one camp in Puebla between Jan. 14-22 and has been gathering in Toluca, which is even higher than Puebla, since Feb. 7.
Aside from that recurring factor facing US teams in Mexico, Ramos has no complaints about where the qualifying tournament is being held.
“Mexico, I believe, is one of the top five or six soccer countries in the world,” he said. “The facilities are great, the environment is great, the people here are nice. There are really no excuses here.”
The meticulous preparation is just one sign that Ramos has caught the coaching bug after taking over the U-20s in late 2011, having readied himself for the step up by working as Thomas Rongen’s assistant for two years beforehand.
“I really enjoy coaching. I really enjoy doing the homework that is required to prepare games and to prepare for other teams, to develop the players and to jell the team,” said Ramos.
Good performances over the next few months at the qualifying tournament and the World Cup would help Ramos move closer to some of his longer-term ambitions as a manager.
“At some point, I’m hoping that I’m going to be coaching a professional team,” he said. “That’s really what I want.”
And could that be in MLS?
Before all that, though, US Soccer and its fans are anxiously looking south to Puebla to see if one of its hall-of-famers can hand its youth soccer program a much-needed boost on the international stage.
Last year’s Olympic qualification failure and the disappointment of not reaching the U-20 World Cup last time around in 2011 loom large. But Ramos is refusing to burden his squad, or himself, with what has gone before and can’t be undone.
“I realize that getting good results here and going to the World Cup would be very important for US Soccer,” said Ramos. “At the same time, I don’t want to put that pressure, that weight on our players because they really don’t deserve it.”
The former Metrostars midfielder may shield his players, but he is also well aware of the fact that the CONCACAF tournament is the latest window through which Jurgen Klinsmann (right, with USMNT assistant Martin Vasquez) and his tinkering with the US youth system of play, with the emphasis on a high-intensity passing approach focused around more technical players, will be judged.
“[A lot of] the players go from being amateurs to being professionals and a lot of that happens during the time that I have them,” Ramos explained. “One of the things I did as a coach is try select players who feel comfortable with the ball at their feet and players who are not afraid to have the ball at times when we need them.”He also knows the importance of this U-20 age group in that process and of the responsibility in his hands.
He added: “Hopefully that’s what transpires on the field. That’s what we’ve been shooting for.”
But he cautions observers against expecting the U-20s in Mexico to be a carbon copy of Klinsmann’s first-team tactics board. Ramos told the press in a media call last Friday that while he is preparing the players to be able to step into the full national team at some point, that doesn’t mean that he can’t be flexible.
“You depend a lot on the players you have in one particular age group,” he said.
The next flagship event for US youth soccer promises to be fascinating, not least to see Ramos' real debut as a head coach.
Tom Marshall covers Americans playing in Latin America for MLSsoccer.com. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.