Résumé vs. reality: Does Tab Ramos hold the answers to the USMNT’s problems?
After asking around plenty, one point became clear: If I was going to write in any detail about Tab Ramos, I really needed to hear “the helicopter story.”
“Tab was LeBron before LeBron,” one person said of Ramos, only partially joking. “Recruited to a private high school, had his pick of the litter for college. A legend people barely talk about.”
So I attended Ramos’ lecture at the 2018 United Soccer Coaches Convention in Philadelphia in January, seeking to learn more about the greatest talent of American soccer’s greatest generation, who’s now guiding future American stars as the head of U.S. Soccer’s youth national teams department.
“And that’s such a good story, too,” he said with a smile when asked about his helicopter tale, setting the scene in Acapulco, Mexico, where a 15-year-old Ramos was on a youth national team that had just been eliminated from an international tournament by mighty Argentina.
Back in Jersey, his high-school team at St. Benedict’s -- the Catholic school that would blossom into a powerhouse in the wake of Ramos’ exploits -- was one game away from a state cup final. Its legendary headmaster, Father Edwin Leahy, made sure that his star player knew to hustle home.
The best players play for free. That happens. ... The issue is, how do we get into the inner city to give those players an opportunity?
Led to believe there weren’t any flights back to New York that day, Ramos went for a walk on the beach, only to get a stern phone call from the headmaster upon his return. Young Ramos was told to stay in place and await further instructions, which soon came from an alumnus who sent a private jet from Houston with a first-class connection in Dallas.
The teenager made his way to Acapulco’s darkened airport in the dead of night, where he heard the click-clack of a pair of shoes coming his way on the terminal floor before a voice informed him, “Your plane is here.” Another complication: All this was made possible because the relevant authorities had been told Ramos’ father was gravely ill, so he’d have to play along if questioned.
He made his connection in Texas, then heard his name over the airplane loudspeaker just before final approach into New York City.
“‘Everybody stay seated, except for Mr Ramos; could you leave the plane?’” recalled the protagonist. “It was back in the days where you had to go down from plane and walk on the runway to go back to the airport, but I noticed there’s a helicopter right next to the plane. And so they’re like, ‘oh, that’s your helicopter.’ ‘Oh, OK. Glad I got here on time.’
“So I get in the helicopter, they fly me all the way to Newark, I arrive and made it to the game, and we ended up winning the game 10-0,” said Ramos wryly, drawing a loud ovation. He left out the fact that he netted five of the goals and assisted on another four – and that St. Benedict’s would go on to win the first of many state championships, with the likes of Claudio Reyna, Gregg Berhalter and Juan Agudelo following in his revered footsteps.
Building his career from the ground up
Today, Tab Ramos is a trailblazer of another sort, the undisputed chief of the U.S. Soccer Federation’s youth national team system. His name is routinely attached to nearly every major coaching or managerial vacancy in the country. Some will argue – even now, a decade and a half after he retired – that he might still be the best men’s player the United States has ever created, and that, combined with his background and coaching resume, would seem to make him an ideal leader for a soccer nation awash in troublesome issues of access, culture and identity at this delicate point in its history.
Yet for all that, Ramos’ presence in the heavy conversations currently raging across American soccer is strangely muted.
Narrating the arc of his own coaching career with a few colorful tidbits from his past, Ramos connected with the room full of rank-and-file coaches in Philly, leaving no doubt that he was one of them despite his illustrious past and lofty titles.
Because, unlike many former star players who aim to vault straight into big professional coaching jobs right after retirement, Ramos started at the bottom: as an assistant on an Under-9 team near his northern New Jersey home.
Ramos cited advice he got from veteran Spanish manager Xabier Azkargorta, who told Ramos, “ ‘You just retired from playing. You don’t know anything about soccer.
“ ‘You’ve got to start coaching from the youngest age group, to learn how to teach the game first,’ ” recalled Ramos. “‘ To learn what makes kids tick or how you get them to do things, how you teach them but at the same time allow them to have fun so they come back.’
“I was immersed in youth soccer, and you know how much time that takes. It’s every weekend, it’s every day, you have no time for anything else. And I enjoyed that, because I think that was a great experience for me for what was coming next.”
What came next was a methodical climb up the youth national team ranks, starting with a friendly invite from Thomas Rongen to join his U-20s staff nearly a decade ago. When Rongen was dismissed from his post after the U.S. U-20s’ failure to qualify for the 2011 World Cup, the federation offered Ramos his job. At first he declined, citing loyalty to his former boss, but was eventually persuaded when informed that Rongen himself had recommended him for the post.
Ramos still mans that post today, in addition to the title of USSF youth technical director on the boys’ side. He has presided over two successful U-20 qualifying cycles and led a significant overhaul of the youth national teams program. He has influenced several promising crops of players, headlined by the talented ‘98/99 group that includes Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Matthew Olosunde and Luca de la Torre, while former U-20 standouts like Kellyn Acosta, Paul Arriola, Ethan Horvath, Matt Miazga and Rubio Rubin have already waded well into the senior team's player pool.
“I feel like our players have become very comfortable in our youth national teams. I think all our youth national teams play sort of the same way at this point,” Ramos said, making the case that an uptempo pressing game is the country’s most natural style.
“Our youth players are prepared to just go after teams. Sometimes we’re going to lose, but a lot of times they’re going to be successful, because this is how we play best, I think this fits our culture best. If you look at the American society in general, we always want to be No. 1 … I want the players to feel that, I want the players to know that this is who we are.”
Ramos believes he has coached “some of the best players that, I think, we probably have ever had. I truly believe that this last U-20 team we had, had some real potential for some players who will be in the national team for the next decade, and that’s ultimately our goal.”
An unrivaled knowledge of the system: good or bad?
A child of Uruguayan immigrants who settled in the teeming soccer hotbeds of north Jersey when he was 11, Ramos was a savvy, skillful midfielder with few equals in the charismatic U.S. men’s national teams of the 1990s, playing in Spain and Mexico before becoming the first player signing in MLS history.
“I grew up in a soccer family,” said Ramos. “My parents passed away in the last three or four years, and my recollection of my mom is her sitting in the kitchen cooking, with a soccer game in the background. That was my home. Always a soccer game. My dad was kind of the same.”
As a former pro and established USSF coach, he’s a member of arguably the two most influential fraternities in American soccer. He speaks both Spanish and English. He has routinely called up Latino players and others from often-overlooked communities to the U-20s, and served as one of Jurgen Klinsmann’s top assistants during the German’s tenure in charge of the senior squad.
I’d like to coach the senior national team at some point. I don’t know if that’s now or later – it doesn’t really matter. I think I’m in a good place and I think I’m valued by U.S. Soccer where I am.
He appears to know the U.S. landscape inside and out, and his intriguing integration of the youth national teams was showcased with last month’s “summit,” gathering five teams and 153 players for a week-long camp in Florida.
“We let all the players know that although it may seem like you’re on our U-18 national team, we don’t see it that way,” said Ramos. “We see it as, here’s your five coaches, you’re all our players. So every week we have a conference, all of the youth national team coaches, and we discuss all the players of all age groups – who we could potentially move up, or who can do well, or who we can talk to a club about, see if they can accelerate their development process.”
Given that body of work, why isn’t Ramos a clear frontrunner for the U.S. men’s national team job, or any number of other prominent posts at the professional or international levels?
That’s where it gets murky.
What next for Ramos? It could shape the USMNT
He has been linked to several job openings in the professional game, but has yet to ply his trade on that stage. He was widely expected to be the first choice for the U.S. men’s national team’s interim head coaching position after Bruce Arena resigned in the wake of 2018 World Cup qualifying failure, and aims to be considered for the permanent gig at some point. But Arena’s longtime assistant Dave Sarachan was the one handed the caretaker role before new management is installed.
“It’s tricky,” said Ramos when asked about his future ambitions during the Q&A segment of his Philly appearance. “You always want to advance. I think I’m in a good place. I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy both jobs that I have. I don’t know, really. It’s not something that I’m seeking every day.
“I’d like to coach the senior national team at some point. I don’t know if that’s now or later – it doesn’t really matter. I think I’m in a good place and I think I’m valued by U.S. Soccer where I am. I feel good about that. But I don’t know. I don’t know when the time will come, if it will come or not.”
He was reported as a finalist for the San Jose Earthquakes’ general manager post in early 2017, but ultimately the job went to Jesse Fioranelli. There’s a line of thinking that Ramos will have to prove himself capable of leading adult players, not just youth internationals, before he is to be entrusted with the senior squad. But burnishing his credentials at the club level could well require taking a step down from the position he has worked his way into with the federation.
Before the U.S. men’s national team’s failure to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, Ramos appeared to be the coach in waiting. Since then, however, Ramos risks being associated with a discredited administration. He has been embroiled in the blowback from the defection of Jonathan Gonzalez from the United States to Mexico, having apparently interacted with the rising Monterrey star more than anyone else from U.S. Soccer.
Ramos made Gonzalez the youngest member of his U-20 squad for their CONCACAF qualifying tournament in 2017, only to play center back Erik Palmer-Brown out of position at holding midfield ahead and eventually leave Gonzalez off the World Cup roster.
When the news broke that Gonzalez would switch his eligibility to his father’s homeland, Ramos drew widespread criticism for telling Goal.com that “if we have players in this country who feel Mexican and want to play for Mexico, I think they should play for Mexico.”
In Philadelphia he doubled down on that sentiment.
“I don’t want to be coaching a player that would rather be playing for the other team. Mexico’s our big rival,” said Ramos. “You play because you’re playing for your country, and if you don’t have that passion, I think it’s difficult to have a player like this on your team. Jonathan Gonzalez is a great player and he’s a great person and his parents are great people, but they made a decision that’s a lifetime decision to play for another country.
“Hopefully he made that decision because it’s his feeling of who he wants to play for, not because this could be more lucrative down the road.”
Such words may not impress the vocal segment of the American soccer community eager, in the wake of a disastrous 2017, for sweeping changes in how the federation is run. And in this regard Ramos turns out to be something of a Rorschach test.
Ramos’ parents often didn’t have the time nor money to shuttle him to and from practices, games and camps, but as an elite player, coaches helped him make it happen. So Ramos, who says “pay to play will never end,” has seen both sides of the dilemma as someone once outside the system who is now part of it.
“The best players play for free. That happens. The issue is a little bit different,” he said, taking a pragmatic approach to a hot-button debate. “The issue is, how do we get into the inner city to give those players an opportunity? Because those players can’t even go to some of the clubs. That’s where the problem is.”
His words seem to connect with his audience. But is Ramos looking deeper, or revealing an incomplete vision just like so many others in these troubled times? Some observers have called the federation to task for its difficulties in connecting with marginalized communities, an issue that’s taken on more urgency after the 2018 qualifying debacle. Can figures like Ramos produce new solutions from within? Or are more outside perspectives needed?
Whatever the answers are, it is a pivotal topic for both him and U.S. Soccer.
Ramos was ahead of his time as a player, and has paid his dues as a coach. So is this living legend the key to fixing American soccer, or a symbol of where it all went astray? Who on the federation’s staff will make that judgment? And where will it send the U.S. men’s national team? The answers to those questions will, in part, define the federation’s future.