For Tab Ramos, each and every experience with the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team is just a bit different.
Sure, he’s been through the process in two previous cycles and, sure, he’s found success while working with some of the brightest prospects in the U.S. Soccer pool, but Ramos feels the nerves, the uneasiness, just like all of his players, as the team embarks on their quest towards this summer’s Under-20 World Cup.
Ramos and the U.S. U-20s begin that journey, in earnest, on Saturday when they open the CONCACAF U-20 Championships against Panama. It’s a team Ramos remembers as CONCACAF’s best last time out, even if they fell to Mexico in penalties in the final match of the 2015 tournament. The 2015 U.S. squad eventually made the run to the quarterfinals where penalties undid them as well, but Ramos remembers Panama being as fierce as any team they saw.
The Panama that appears on Saturday? Well, that’s anyone’s guess, especially on the U-20 level, but Ramos insists his group will be ready for whatever comes their way when the tournament kicks off in Costa Rica.
“For me, personally, what keeps me going is that I still feel a little bit nervous for that first game because I know how difficult it is,” Ramos said on Thursday. “That tells me that, if I’m nervous, chances are that we’re going to be pretty well prepared. If I had to say are we doing things exactly the same as we did two cycles ago, I’d say no because every time you come here it’s a learning experience. You’re always learning new things.
“The staff that we have this time is better than any staff we had in the past and we’re preparing in many different ways and our team will be much better prepared than they’ve been in the past. At the end of the day, I think what matters is how the team shows on the field and that, I’m sure, we will start the tournament on a positive note because we’ll be well prepared for that.”
Final preparations truly began several months back. In December, Ramos led a group of U-20 hopefuls to Costa Rica to experience the environment and the travel that they would face in the upcoming tournament. January brought a fitness camp with college and MLS players before four scrimmages, two in California and two in Florida.
On Feb. 9, Ramos unveiled his final 20-man roster, one with several noticeable absences. There was no Gedion Zelalem, a player who was a part of the 2015 squad. Forward Mukwelle Akale wasn’t released. Neither were midfielders Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague.
However, Ramos is confident in the group he was able to bring in, led by captain Erik Palmer-Brown. Following a loan spell at FC Porto, the Sporting KC defender returned with a new level of maturity, Ramos says, and the head coach believes the 2015 World Cup veteran is the leader the group needs heading into the upcoming qualifying tournament.
The forward pool features one of the top MLS SuperDraft picks in Jeremy Ebobisse along with Coy Craft and Emmanuel Sabbi, two players that jumped back into the picture over the last several weeks. Jonathan Klinsmann, son of former U.S. Men’s National Team boss Jurgen, steps in as the starting goalkeeper. Youngsters Tyler Adams and Jonathan Gonzalez are two players Ramos says are capable of helping out a talented midfield group.
Still, there are obvious concerns. There’s no natural star playmaker, like a Zelalem or Hyndman, but Ramos says he has confidence in players like Sebastian Saucedo, Luca de la Torre and Brooks Lennon to fill that void as a unit. There’s no natural left back following an injury to Marcelo Borges, even if Ramos says he’s confident in the mystery player he has selected to fill the void.
Ramos says he won’t commit to one formation or philosophy. Rather, he’ll let the players dictate what works for this particular group for this particular tournament.
“It’s hard to compare because the other few cycles were very different. In the first one, we really lacked athletic ability,” Ramos recalled. “Although it was a technical group that did well in qualifying well enough to get to the final, we lacked that athletic component that you need to compete with the European teams and the top South American teams. I think the following team, the one that you saw in the World Cup that made it to the quarterfinal, that team was competitive enough that, with a little bit of luck, we could have made it to the final of the World Cup. That’s very difficult because you do need a little bit of luck and the team was competitive enough to do that.
“This group sort of falls in between both of those. We have tremendously talented players skill-wise but we also have a physical component that is really important for, hopefully, after we get through here to compete with some of the better teams in the world.”
The road ahead, though, will be tough. Following the opener against Panama, the U.S. takes on Haiti and Saint Kitts & Neves. If the U.S. finishes in the top two of group play, a second group stage looms, one that would see the U.S. join two other sides in the next round. The top-two finishers in each group will then book their tickets to South Korea, while the top overall finishers in each group will contend for CONCACAF bragging rights.
For now, though, Ramos says it’s imperative to focus on game one. It’s impossible to win the second group if the U.S. doesn’t take care of business in the first, and it’s impossible to take care of business in the first if they fall flat with Panama. Ramos certainly doesn’t want to fall behind the eight ball in game one.
He’ll rely on those months of preparations to ensure they don’t do so. The nervousness will remain, but an opening win would do a lot for a U.S. team desperate for its latest push on the youth level.
“I think that the group we have here is ready to compete and is as prepared as either one of the last two groups we had to qualify,” Ramos said. “I’m never over-confident because, in qualifying, we’re always going to go through those games where, inevitably, we need to win and it can go either way.
“Sometimes you have to hope that game goes your way because you need that break at the right time and this group is not going to be different. We’re going to go through the bad moments, suffer together, but in the end I know this is a talented group and we should get the job done.”