By FRANCO PANIZO
SUNRISE, Fla. — Tab Ramos is a happy man. He did not get everyone he wanted, but he came pretty close.
The Under-20 U.S. Men’s National Team that will compete in the 2015 CONCACAF U-20 Championship was officially unveiled on Monday morning, and a U.S. record 18 players on the 20-man roster are professionals plying their trade in MLS, Mexico or Europe.
While that might be reason enough for Ramos to smile as he prepares to lead the group of promising youngsters into the World Cup qualifying tournament, the head coach can also gleam from knowing that he was able to convince a couple of English clubs to send over players in Cameron Carter-Vickers (Tottenham) and Emerson Hyndman (Fulham) whose releases were not mandated. Carter-Vickers joined his teammates on Sunday night, and Hyndman is expected to meet up with the team in Jamaica on Monday.
Ramos was not able to persuade FC Utrecht in doing the same with attacker Rubio Rubin, and Sporting Kansas City centerback Erik Palmer-Brown still isn’t healthy enough to play despite making some significant strides in recent days. But the overall group headed for Jamaica boasts both the quality and versatility that Ramos thinks will lead to a successful qualifying campaign.
“I would be surprised if during the tournament we don’t use every single one of the players, including the back-up goalkeeper,” Ramos told SBI on Monday. “I think everybody is very competitive here, and definitely every person that has been selected can serve a purpose to help the team.
“I’m looking forward to that and, look, in the end, you always hope that the best XI that you have out there are the guys that are going to play every game the whole tournament. But we know that’s not how it works. There’s injuries, there’s guys tired, and, in this case, I think we have guys that can come in and make a difference.”
As much talent as there is on the squad, Ramos and his coaching staff were faced with the difficult challenge of getting players sharp and fit at a point in the year when many players are enjoying a holiday break. The MLS players are in their offseason, and the bulk of the European contingent is also taking a brief respite from action.
That’s why Ramos assembled a week-long camp in the South Florida heat and humidity that consisted of several two-a-day sessions. Players were challenged physically even before playing in a pair of friendlies over the weekend that they won 6-0 and 2-0, and also mentally by missing out on being with friends and family on New Year’s Eve.
It’s all part of technical director Jurgen Klinsmann’s plan to teach the young Americans what it means to be a 24/7 professional, but it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
“We have a long way to go because you have to think that it sounds great that we have 18 or 19 professional players out of the 20, but the fact is that most of them are not playing every weekend,” said Ramos. “We had to do a special camp in December for seven or eight of them who were not training at all. In theory, it all sounds great that they’re on professional teams but we’re not selecting from guys who play every weekend.”
Nonetheless, there is still considerable talent on this 20-man roster. Ramos said in a Q&A with USSoccer.com on Monday that the group was stronger from “top to bottom” than those of years past. There is so much quality, in fact, that it is likely that you see several players in new and different positions through the five-game group stage in Jamaica.
Versatility is not only mandated by the quick turnarounds – the U.S. plays its five matches over a span of 13 days – but also by the number of roster spots available. At 20 players, there is not room to have a back-up at each position, which played a role in Ramos having to move pieces around in order to assemble a balanced squad.
“Here’s the challenge for us as a staff: You have a winger who’s a very good winger and then you have another player who is another winger who is very good winger,” said Ramos. “So your choice is do you leave that second player out of the lineup completely or do you fit him into another spot where maybe he can help you and still change positions with someone else? Those are things that became a little difficult for us.”
Ramos has a plan should the Americans directly qualify for the World Cup by topping a Group A that also includes Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, Panama and Guatemala. The U.S. would hold a camp in March in New Zealand – site of this summer’s tournament – and Australia to take a tour of the area and possibly play in some friendlies.
The team that would go there would not be Ramos’ strongest, as almost all the players will be in season and not obligated to be released by their clubs. But the trip would allow some familiarity with the climate and conditions for some of the Americans expecting to play on the bigger stage.
Still, Ramos is almost completely focused on the qualifying campaign. He knows how tough it can be, even for a bunch as talented as his.
“I don’t really like to get ahead of that,” said Ramos. “I’ve been asked by U.S. Soccer and I’ve kind of put it aside because I know how difficult qualifying is. Next thing you know you start thinking about going to the World Cup and you’re going to be watching it at home.
“Certainly if we do well in this tournament, we go to the World Cup, it opens it up for everybody once again.”