Tab Ramos has long been a visible star of soccer in the United States, and these next few weeks will be no different, as the former national team midfielder and current U.S. U-20 coach and youth technical director is part of a star-studded list of analysts for Telemundo Deportes’ 2018 World Cup coverage.
Ramos is currently residing in Red Square, where he spins his tactical webs on television alongside former icons of the game like Diego Forlán and Claudio Borghi. It is the 10th time he has traveled to a World Cup, as he noted during a sit-down in Manhattan prior to his trip overseas. However, for the first time, Ramos has traveled to a World Cup without the purpose of playing or coaching.
The same is true for the United States national team, as there is no escaping the reality that, barring another unthinkable missed qualification, the men’s national team is currently four years away from its next kick in a World Cup, which is four years too many.
Ramos was a burgeoning youth player in 1985, similar to the players he coaches today, the last time the United States failed to qualify for a World Cup. At that juncture, the United States had not qualified since the Truman Administration, when they managed an unthinkable 1-0 win over England in 1950. But over three decades of absence made it so that, by the mid-1980’s, America’s outlook on soccer was bleak.
“We just basically felt at the time that we didn’t belong in the World Cup, like it wasn’t, it wasn’t even a thought of going to the World Cup,” Ramos said.
Four years after 1985, the United States national team players were beginning to envision themselves at the World Cup. Ramos was 23-years-old when he performed a fairly routine bouncing pass to Paul Caligiuri, but what followed changed the course of American soccer.
Caligiuri made one skip past a Trinidadian defender and uncorked a shot from about 30 yards from goal. The ball seeped into the net, and the United States was going to the 1990 World Cup.
“It was almost like we had just won a fantasy trip to attend the World Cup,” Ramos said of qualifying for 1990. “You know, because we weren’t world superstars, we weren’t, you know, we were just a bunch of kids really, that worked hard. And now we get to play the best players in the world, that’s just crazy.”
But, seven straight World Cups after 1990 made it so that not qualifying for 2018 was a development even more inexplicable than the goal that began the run in 1989.
When the Yanks take the field for their next World Cup, Ramos may be the one manning the touchline. At bare minimum, the former player turned coaching sage will have played an undeniably significant part in once again returning the stars and stripes to the world stage, albeit in a role he never envisioned for himself when marauding the midfield as a player.
“I was studious as far as, like, trying to learn things about the game,” Ramos said of his days as a player. “So, I had, you know, I kept all the set pieces in my computer, like I did that kind of thing, but I never really saw myself as a coach. And, I think if you were to speak to any of my teammates from the past, I don’t think any of them would have predicted that I wanted to become a coach.”
“But yet, when I retired from playing, I took my B-license, and I really enjoyed it, I loved it, it [was] almost like a light bulb went off, and I realized that I knew so little about the game,” Ramos said.
The thought of a former three-time World Cup veteran, with 81 international appearances, not knowing the sport he had made a life out of, may seem like a ridiculous notion. The idea did not sit well with Ramos when it was first introduced to him by Spanish manager Xabier Azkargorta. In a short while, though, the developing coach came to understand the message.
“It didn’t make sense to me at that point, it didn’t sound, it didn’t feel good…but it’s reality, it’s complete reality,” Ramos said. “Sometimes I think about players who just retired from playing and go right into coaching…and I always think, ‘Wow, that’s so difficult, because there is so much that they don’t know, so much.”
What Ramos learned from Azkargorta was the philosophy that, to teach the game, he needed to engage and find what methods of teaching worked for the youngest players. And so, four years after taking part in three World Cup matches in France, Ramos began his managerial journey at the U-9 level, teaching fundamentals to eight and nine-year-olds.
Year by year, as if playing the lead role in a soccer coaches’ spin-off of Billy Madison, Ramos rose age group by age group. As he reached the top levels in youth soccer – acquiring his A-license in the process – the players naturally grew physically and matured mentally. However, despite rising higher and higher, Ramos found himself continuing to run into the same mistakes.
In 2011, Ramos was hired as the men’s under-20 coach, but he was still encountering small yet significant foundational flaws in some of his players, who were a couple steps removed from being on the senior national team. Without going through years of enforcing the very elementary ideas that his U-20 players had managed to miss in their development, Ramos would not have been able to identify the weaknesses and correct the issues. But, with the tools he had picked up, Ramos was highly-equipped to be the coach that those players needed.
“You learn the real specifics of the game,” Ramos said of coaching younger players. “You learn that, you know, when you’re on your knees, actually throwing a ball to an eight-year-old, and explaining to them, why you hit the ball with the inside of the foot, or with the top of the foot, or with the instep, or whatever that is, you see how they start to get it, you see why that makes a difference.”
“And so, you learn all the little things that maybe when you were a player, you didn’t even think of it, you [were] just like, well, somebody just made a bad pass,” Ramos added. “But, you don’t realize, well, they made a bad pass why? Why did they make it, how was their contact with the ball, was it the right pace, was it the right contact on the ball?”
“And that’s just one example, but it could be anything,” Ramos went on to say. “It could be, heading into the right direction, it could be controlling the ball into space, it could be all kinds of different, little, little things.”
Ramos has coached three consecutive men’s U-20 teams to the World Cup, and in March 2017, he led the United States to its first CONCACAF U-20 Championship title. He has referred to his most recent U-20 graduates, headlined by the likes of Tyler Adams, Justen Glad and Erik Palmer-Brown, as the most talented to come through the program in some time.
Also appointed United States youth technical director in Nov. 2013, Ramos is in many ways the face of youth soccer in the United States. The concentration of power is a lot for one person – and may even seem like a monopoly of responsibility – but Ramos may be the perfect bearer of that weight. He is authentic in his commitment to young players, and his outspokenness on their behalf is unrelenting.
“There’s not many 18, 19-year-olds that will ever be better than a 34-year-old guy…it’s just not going to happen,” Ramos said. “But if you give that 18, 19-year-old five, six, eight, 10 games in a row, I bet you in 10 games, he will be better than the 34-year-old.”
“He just needs that experience, he needs to get that timing of a game; he needs to make the mistakes, he needs to get into those hard tackles that only happen in those games,” Ramos added. “And, that only comes with experience, and that only comes with a coach who is willing to give you an opportunity.”
Sometime – likely after the World Cup – the United States Soccer Federation (USSF) will make its decision on the next manager of the men’s national team. In a period of program reconstruction, the appointment calls for a manager with passion and revolutionary ideas, something Ramos certainly presents.
“I personally don’t think that [defending first] fits our culture, I don’t think it fits the players that we have,” Ramos said. “I think if you take a player like Tyler Adams, and you tell him you have to defend the whole time, I don’t think you maximize his ability.”
The position also demands experience, though, and the one thing lacking from Ramos’ extensive résumé is managerial experience at the senior club or national team level. Coaching at that level is not something that the seventh-year U-20 coach has shied away from, but something he has not been eager to chase. He garners satisfaction in his role now, with the ability to mold players from raw teenagers to young professionals capable of making an impact at the highest level.
At some point, though, Ramos will be searching for an opportunity to reach the pinnacle of national team coaching. With the door open this summer, the decision may come down to whether the thoughtful team engineer, who is always thinking five games ahead, is ready for a move that will change the course of his life and the USSF.
“I’ve thought about all of it [coaching at club or senior national team level], and I think, I’m not in a hurry for anything,” Ramos said. “I know I can do any of those jobs, so at this point, all I can do is, is – I’m grateful with the job I have, because I think I have an incredible job and a lot of responsibility, with all the youth players.”
“But other than that, I’ll be prepared for whatever challenge comes next,” Ramos added. “I know that, you know, I’m likely not going to be doing this job forever.”