Can Tab Ramos revitalize Houston Dynamo's academy?

HOUSTON — Perhaps no place understands pipelines better than the city that calls itself the energy capital of the world.

So one of the central tasks facing Tab Ramos as Houston Dynamo’s new head coach seeks to return the club to its former glories is increasing the rate of young talent flowing fast and frequently from the academy into the first-team starting XI.

The Dynamo reached the playoffs six times in their first seven seasons, winning MLS Cup twice and finishing as runners-up twice. The next seven delivered only two losing appearances in Conference finals and one U.S. Open Cup trophy.

The Dynamo are unlikely to match the spending on transfer fees and wages seen at some of MLS' highest spenders, but in terms of local talent, Ramos is bullish about the area’s demographics.

“There’s no question, Houston has amazing potential," said Ramos, who compared it to the soccer-mad country of his birth during his introductory press conference this week. "It’s bigger than Uruguay, and Uruguay’s a world champion a couple of times. One of the things we have to do better as an organization is getting out there to the Latino community and bringing those players and making them feel comfortable. Same for the African American community."

Ramos said he'd like to see the youth academy setup mirror the composition of the highest level of full and youth international competition in the US.

“If you look at the makeup of our international teams, who our best players are, and you take a picture of the team, you really see what America is about," he said. "Sometimes I feel in the development academy that’s not always represented. Hopefully we can do a great job here to represent exactly that."

A 2012 Rice University analysis described the Houston region as the country’s most diverse large metropolitan area. Home to about seven million people, it’s also the fifth-biggest — with, as Ramos pointed out, about twice as many inhabitants as Uruguay, the two-time World Cup winners and 2018 quarterfinalists.

Under general manager Matt Jordan, the Dynamo have become adept at spotting and integrating young talent from south and central America, including Mauro Manotas, Tomás Martínez and Alberth Elis.

But few local Academy graduates have gone on to make much of an impact in the professional ranks. Standouts are 31-year-old current back-up goalkeeper, Tyler Deric, and fast-improving attacking midfielder Memo Rodriguez, a 23-year-old who made 26 league appearances this year, scoring seven goals and contributing five assists. The other Homegrown Player on the 2019 roster, Sweden-born 18-year-old defender Erik McCue, is yet to make his MLS debut.

That relative dearth of young talent comes in comparison to Texas rivals FC Dallas, who have 10 Homegrowns on their current roster, including key contributors such as goalkeeper Jesse Gonzalez, defender Reggie Cannon, forward Jesus Ferreira and midfield starlet Paxton Pomykal.

As with Ramos’ predecessor, former Colombian defender Wilmer Cabrera, the Dynamo have hired a man who is fluent in English and Spanish, played in the World Cup for his country and developed his tactical skills as a U.S. Soccer youth coach before taking the plunge into MLS. The 53-year-old former midfielder won 81 caps and played in two World Cups for the US national team, and was an MLS mainstay for the New York/New Jersey MetroStars.

Born in Uruguay before his family settled in New Jersey when he was 11 years old, Ramos arrives in the MLS dugout after eight years managing the US under-20 men’s national team.

Ramos plans on being closely involved in the Dynamo academy and has already attended U-17 and U-19 sessions.

“We know how important that is to the club and we knew that coming in,” he said, also referencing efforts over the past year to allocate more resources to that branch of the club. “I think the club is already moving in the right direction.”

Dynamo president of business operations John Walker said he is excited to appoint a coach who aims to be a regional leader.

“What stood out to me was Tab’s openness and willingness to be in the community and be very visible in the community,” he said. “He is an ambassador for the game and he’ll be an ambassador for our club.”

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