By DAN KARELL
Every decision made on the field next week in Marbella, Spain will have an impact on Tab Ramos’ decisions on who to bring to Jamaica, more than 4,500 miles away and two months in the future.
As the U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team makes its second to last international trip of the calendar year, head coach Tab Ramos’ mind is going to be on Jamaica, the site of the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships from Jan. 9-24. In addition to worrying about which of his players will be released from their clubs, Ramos is also making sure that the team focuses on learning how to grind out a result.
Ramos learned from previous experience that some of these tournament games can turn into a more physical affair. With numerous games expected to be played on just one or two fields over the course of a couple of weeks, it can become difficult to play a more pretty-on-the-eye, possession based system.
“I have to select a team that’s willing to grind it out in difficult circumstances and that’s definitely not going to be easy,” Ramos told SBI in a phone interview just prior to jetting off to Spain. “It’s getting late in the cycle but still you’re bringing players in and out and to be honest this is a very talented group and it’s a group that has very good players on the possession side, so I have to be very selective in terms of selecting the right possession players who are also willing to grind out the game. At times I know that in Jamaica it won’t be pretty.”
Starting on Wednesday, the U.S. U-20s will play a three-match schedule against three strong opponents in Marbella as part of the U-21 International National Teams Football Tournament.
The U.S. U-20s kick off their schedule with a clash against Russia U-21s on Wednesday before facing the Republic of Ireland U-21s on Saturday and finishing up with Canada U-20s on Nov. 18.
While the fields should be of top quality in Spain, Ramos is envisioning what it is like to see his technical squad play in difficult conditions in the Carribbean, and will have to determine which players can best adapt to those circumstances.
“When we played the qualification in Mexico with the last group (in 2013), we knew that on every field we would have to come out and play soccer every time,” Ramos said. “If we did, over a period of time as the game went on, we would wear out the opponents and eventually we’d find our openings and probably win the games. You’re never guaranteed to win obviously, but we knew that with soccer you can win.
“When you play on fields that are not up to par, it levels off the teams a lot more so there can be a lot more surprises. I want to make sure that we have a team that’s prepared to not be surprised because every game is going to have to be ground out.”
Ramos has used the opportunity of having a European-based camp to call in a few new faces to the U-20 squad. Chief among them is 16-year-old Tottenham centerback Cameron Carter-Vickers, who has dual citizenship with the USA and Great Britain.
The U.S. coach raved about Carter-Vickers after a short stint with the U.S. U-23s last month in Brazil, and is even working with former U.S. Men’s National Team goalkeeper Brad Friedel at Tottenham to help convince Spurs to release Carter-Vickers for U-20 World Cup qualifying.
“I spoke with Jurgen when we put the U-23 team together and asked him what he thought of the idea of pushing (Carter-Vickers) up and seeing how far we could push him and see if he would respond, and Jurgen is always all for giving younger players an opportunity,” said Ramos. “We give him an opportunity with the U-23s. I saw him practice twice with the U-23s and decided, you know what, we’re playing Brazil, it’s going to be very difficult to get a result anyways, although we want one, but let me give the young players an opportunity.
“So I started him against the Brazil U-23 and I have to tell you, for the 60-65 minutes I had him on the field, he really did a great job. Physically you would have never known that you had a 16-year-old playing against 21-23-year olds.”
Another player that is new to the U-20s is Emerson Hyndman, who has earned a good chunk of minutes this season as an 18-year-old with Fulham in the Championship. Though this is his first U-20 call-up of the current cycle, Hyndman is a player Ramos is familiar with.
“I’ve always liked Emerson, since he was 14-15, in terms of the way he plays,” Ramos said. “As you saw with the last U-20 team I had, I do like players who want to have the ball and want to keep possession of the ball and emerson is definitely one of those guys. What really impresses me about him is his speed of play at this point. He can get a pass and deliver it very quickly. So he’s not just a possession player, he’s a possession player that can do it at a high level and a high speed, and I think that’s what differentiates him from other players.”
Due to injuries to Bradford Jamieson, Ben Spencer, and Zach Pfeffer or club commitments from Paul Arriola, Ramos is testing out a new quartet of forwards in Spain; Amando Moreno, Andrija Novakovich, Tommy Thompson, and Dembakwi Yomba.
All but Yomba, who is in Atletico Madrid’s youth academy, have played with the U-20s during this cycle, but Ramos is looking to identify a “difference maker” who can add something new to the squad.
“All those four guys who are not going on the trip are still a very big part of the team,” Ramos explained. “I wanted to give an opportunity to some guys that I feel maybe can show me that something up front that maybe we need.”
Looking forward, Ramos has two more camps after this Spain trip to finalize his roster decisions, and he must submit a provisional list of up to 30 players to CONCACAF by Dec. 10.
The biggest concerns for Ramos once the camp ends is ensuring that he can get the release of a number of his European-based players from their clubs for the month of January so they can participate in the CONCACAF U-20 Championships. Ramos admits that it’s going to be a difficult prospect to get all of his targets released, including the likes of Lynden Gooch at Sunderland, Rubio Rubin at FC Utrecht, Carter-Vickers at Tottenham, and Hyndman at Fulham.
However, Ramos believes that he and his coaching staff have scouted and built a strong enough depth to survive missing out on certain players for the U-2o World Cup qualifiers.
“I have a feeling that it’s still going to be difficult when it comes down to the last minute because we haven’t ironed out all the releases in January,” Ramos said. “That’s mostly because sometimes in Europe, coaches don’t know if they’re going to be in their positions three months from now, so even if they were to make a promise to you ‘okay yeah you’re going to have him a whole month in January’, things change a lot in Europe with results.”
“If I had to bet at this moment, I’d say that there’s a good possibility that they will not get released, so we’ll live with that. We’ll have to do what we can with what we have and I’m confident that we have a good group.”