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Tab Ramos discusses advancements and flaws in U.S. player development

While poised to fill the vacancy of U.S. Men’s National Team head coach if he is summoned in the future, Tab Ramos has a more immediate concern in his current position as Youth Technical Director of U.S. Soccer – improving the landscape for player development while elevating the status of the Youth National Teams.

“Thinking about the head job is not something I lose sleep over every day,” Ramos told SBI Soccer on SiriusXM FC’s The Coaching Academy. “I love the job that I have at U.S. Soccer. Historically, it’s the best year we’ve ever had with our youth national teams. Unfortunately, that gets overlooked because of the senior team at this point.

“None of us pictured ourselves being outside the World Cup,” said Ramos. “Especially in 2018.”

The Under-15 side advanced to its first CONCACAF final while the U-17’s reached the quarterfinal round of the World Cup. Under Ramos, the U-20’s won their first CONCACAF championship and advanced to the World Cup round of eight.

A streak of seven straight World Cups  was halted, stimulating considerable conversation about player development in the states. Ramos indicated that specific enhancement schemes had already been studied – and implemented.

“I don’t think one result changes everything,” said Ramos. “These are the conversations we’ve been having for years.”

Beginning August 1, U.S. Soccer executed the Player Development Initiatives (PDI’s) which address the immediate and long-term growth of grassroots soccer targeting the 6-12 age group. Security on the ball resonated with the federation’s youth director.

“When I started in this position (2013) I wanted to address the fact that our players just lack a general comfort level on the ball,” said Ramos. “Although we want to compete against Brazil and the top nations in the world, it’s difficult. When you look at the players we normally choose from and you are to compare for example not an accomplished country like Guatemala or El Salvador, you see that their players are much more comfortable on the ball.

“At that point, we have an issue.”

To combat the technical deficiencies, Ramos suggested scenarios for the PDI that place our youngest players in conditions that require maximum touches on the ball.

“This year our kids are playing on smaller fields and in tighter spaces,” said Ramos. “Players around the world – I don’t want to say they’re lucky enough to be playing on playgrounds all the time. But it’s a fact our players don’t play that type of game. We can’t bring the playground to our players but we can try our best. By having smaller fields and more contact with the ball in traffic they have to react to different situations a lot more often than in the past. We’re hoping that down the road we start seeing the results.”

The initiative requires that U6-U8 play 4v4 without a goalkeeper; U9-U10 are 7v7 with a keeper; U11-U12 is 9v9 with a keeper. The U9-U12 implement a “build out line” which encourages the pre-teens to play through the keeper and back line.

“It’s going to be difficult to see until a few years from now when we have a generation of players that have gone though it,” said Ramos. “Small-sided games, having the players with an opportunity to play out of the back – it’s something that’s going to help us. We’re now playing the game and not just kicking the ball.”

College and High School Soccer

 While NCAA Division 1 coaches lobby for a schedule that spans the full academic year, Ramos believes that the college game still plays a vital role in development.

“I think we’ve done enough of looking at college in a negative way and say it does not fit into our system and I happen to think the opposite of that,” said Ramos, a three-time All American at North Carolina State. “The best players in the country, particularly from midfield and the attacking side of the ball are signing professional contracts when they’re 15, 16, 17, 18.  But there are a lot of defenders and a lot of players that are not physically ready to move into a professional environment who can still use the college game to develop.”

Ramos claims that U.S. Soccer is supporting upgrades that might expand the relationship between college and the national teams.

“One of the things that’s really important about the college game is that they have tremendous facilities,” said Ramos. “So I think its up to us to figure out how we can work together with the college programs to implement new programs to connect the college game a little bit better to the international game. I can tell you that’s something we are trying to work on every day.”

Ramos was the Parade Magazine Player of the Year at St. Benedicts Prep in 1983, the same high school attended by Claudia Reyna and Gregg Berhalter several years later. In a different era and with the birth of the U.S. Soccer Development Academy (USDA) in 2007, high school soccer is scarcely a factor in the development pyramid.

“I love the fact that high school games have that special rivalry between one town and another,” said Ramos who relished St. Benedict’s versus Scotch Plains in his scholastic days. “Although there are some excellent coaches, there are really very few good high school coaches in the country. There are very few programs that are running proper training sessions for their kids in high school. The high school game needs a lot of improvement in order to be part of the pyramid to grow into a professional soccer player.”

With rare exception, the USDA does not permit high school participation.


  1. I believe quality coaching at the youngest ranks is our single biggest issue. Nothing else is really going to matter until that is addressed. Perhaps we’ll discover more athletic players with greater desire, but they’ll probably all still lack technical ability much like guys like Zardes.

    • At the youngest ages, parents are the coaches. Today’s parents are much more likely to have played soccer than their parents were and tomorrow’s parents will be even more soccer knowledgeable. So I am optimistic, but on a generational time scale.

  2. Excellent story. Thanks Ellis Crooks. I am glad Ramos had the balls to say “you look at the players we normally choose from and you are to compare… to Guatemala or El Salvador, you see that their players are much more comfortable on the ball.” We need more emphasis on tighter spaced possession play. If this doesn’t come about in pick-up games, at least the foster it by setting the game rules. What I noticed in Brazil, was many very small soccer fields setup in urban and semi-urban environments, like the way we’d see basketball courts. What would it take to invest in certain geo’s to build these, as an expert? Pick-up soccer with people of all ages is a great way to develop. Problem also is population density and culture where parents aren’t suppossed to let their 10-11-12 year old kids unattended at the park.

  3. Pay to play isn’t going anywhere so what is needed is more inter city places to play like what NYCFC and ATL United have done by building small soccer parks or courts that anyone who wants to play can go play all they need is a ball whether they have money or not. There also needs to be more publicity for certain American players that are excelling at different levels and in different countries as CP, Weston Mckennie, Yedlin and others on the rise to show kids that are not really soccer fans what is possible outside of the MLS because MLS is kind of a joke to fans of other sports but if they understood he money and fame of soccer overseas it might change somebody’s way of thinking or attitude towards soccer. Just my opinion, but soccer needs recognition not just domestically but internationally and I wonder how many none fans have even heard of CP or especially Mckennie.

  4. Youth clubs have two main reasons for existing. One is to get as much money as possible out of parents and the other is to try and convince people they’re actually doing a great job of player development. Neither of these options produces players and Ramos knows it, that’s why the USSF got this involved and why we keep desperately looking abroad for talent. There’s just no two ways around it.

    • Most of the youth clubs I know of are local rec. associations. It is not their mission to make money, nor is it much to do about selling their brand (though some do rightly pride themselves on promoting good soccer.) Youth clubs with an handfull of exceptions do not make money although an increasing number do hire coaches, mostly to cover for the lack of parent volunteers and especially qualified parent, volunteer coaches. For the majority of kids playing soccer (that is mostly players in grade school), there is no alternative to the pay-for-play system. Of course, other than to hope for players playing on their own, something that parents are loath to allow.
      You can bemoan the lack of facilities, or the distances players must travel to play even twice-a-week practices, the woeful preparation of coaches or the cost of all of the above, but it is the parents who will shoulder the financial burden. No professional team is going to reach down to the U-12 teams in any significant way other than perhaps by offering coaching courses, which again the parents will mostly pay for; or to recruit the best 13 year-olds for their official u-15 teams.

  5. I remember back in the early-90s all ODP programs had their players set by the age of12-13. Once a kid is selected, it was hard for a better player to knock someone out. Their logic was they had already invested time and training so they didn’t want to give up on their original pick. Is part of the old boys mentality. even with the staff, players become assistants, then coaches.

  6. MLS teams needs form clubs like: Danubio, River Plate, Newell’s, Santos etc… or form training exchange with these clubs or others in youth development.

  7. Ramos gets it, touched on what’s up. No playground ball at every recess and after school like around the world. It’s an issue. Uncomforatble on the ball as a soccer culture? to me, this is why. Fortunately we now have soccer on TV 24/7 so that piece of the nuanced puzzle which was absent until relatively recently is now at play in the US soccer awareness. But even that, without the actual comfort on the ball Ramos discusses, ends up creating know-it-all parents who never played but now watch and think therefore they know. And since we have this pay to play setup, they feel entitled to spew their ignorance. They are the worst.

    For me, until we get the pay to play suburban thing fixed we’ll continue to be disappointed because the setup systematically eliminates entire classes of people from the equation

    • How do we do that though? Look at basketball where sponsors and agents have turned youth basketball into a cesspool. I don’t think anyone thinks pay to play is productive, but what’s the alternative you need money from somewhere to run these organizations.

      • hey Johnnyrazor, it’s quite the environment from which to build, agreed. US soccer mandates 72 hours of recovery between games, yet club tournaments we’ve ALL participated in assure 3 games in about a 24 hour window, with a 4th for the ‘winners’. These clubs make $$$ with their toruneys, scouts and the like can swing by to see players, but the kids enter into an endurance contest and get nicked up. It’s just NOT about the players, ok? It’s about these clubs’ businesses and those they employ. Not what we know is physically best for the kids and their development, no. The money goal is its own problem in this equation.

      • I’d like to hear your thoughts too Johhny. but $$$ are certainly required, and maybe more of it invested in scouts outside the club channels, at least that’s what I think, especially early in the discovery process when the kids are young, the way they do with the basketball players. I get most of those bball playground moochers are scum, but the difference is that the $$$ associated with potential star bball players is more here in the states, right? that outreach into those communities for soccer could theoretically be more sincere, directed from ussoccer itself, becasue there aren’t those big $$$ in it. Sponsors interested in that expense for development of the us soccer product could be prioritized. But in places where $$$ are not high but tough talent resides, some wealth distribution seems OK to me for the common good of providing opportunity to those communities, too

      • Beach,
        I wish I had an answer. I guess if USSF allowed the payments for transfers to trickle down to youth clubs like they do in Europe that might allow them to offset costs, but that doesn’t help clubs in smaller places that are likely to never have someone sign with a professional club. I think the more USSF can do to encourage training of coaches, and offset that cost the better. With the budget, US Soccer brings in from the national teams to try to make money off this seems ridiculous (you’d have a better idea if this is really a problem, as others on SBI have claimed). You are right there is so much more money available in basketball and that does lead to more corruption. I’ll differ to you, Sepp (I hope he’s still around somewhere) and the couple others on here that are in the youth soccer trenches, fixing pay to play is far out of my wheelhouse.

    • There is nothing wrong with pay to play. The problem is that after taking tens of thousands of dollars from parents the kids still lack basic soccer skills. Youth clubs is where talent goes to die and it has nothing to do with socioeconomic status and everything to do with those that are supposed to develop players. They’re still cashing the checks while putting nothing back into the system.

      • Rob, we disagree. It is true that the superclubs sell hope to willing suburban parents that maybe, just maybe, if their scrub kids work super hard with our coaches, they may make it…and the money flows. But saying that all club level soccer puts nothing back into the system is simply inaccurate. There is better and better out of some of the top levels. Watching the academy teams play this summer you could see what you described still prevailing with some, but with others is was vastly different, and they were better. But it could still, as a whole, do better…that is the point. No need to make up problems–“youth clubs is where talent goes to die”–when real ones do exist seems to me that are more nuanced than the simple baby and bathwater understanding

      • I think pay-to-play is the only way it is possible to finance youth soccer below about U-15. The talent pool is too spread out and too unpredictable for anyone to claim they have a better solution. Most youth clubs to not make money; of course, many do have professional coaches; those coaches perform a service for pay; the parents are the arbiters of how good the coaching is since they are the ones paying for it.

        So what would work, I think it is parents. Parents today are more knowledgeable about soccer than parents 25 years ago. (They may not be better coaches, but at least they are more likely to recognize good soccer.) The parents of today for the most part actually played at least rec. soccer, that was simply not the case 30 years ago.

        If you have been around youth soccer as long as I have, it is impossible not to see the improvement in the average soccer in the USA (not that there aren’t still large swaths of the US where boom the ball long and have your best athlete chase it still describes things pretty well).

        There was a lot of resistance to small-sided teams when it was first introduced and it still causes some friction since it fails to reward pure athleticism as much as does little kids playing on 100 yard fields. But despite significant push-back by local clubs and a lot of rec. leagues who ignore the small-sided mandates it s becoming the norm and I think most parents now support it.

        A non-trivial issue is that small-sided games have fewer players per coach and since the coach is often not a parent volunteer, but someone trying to pick up extra cash or even earn a living by coaching either the coach must work for less or the parents must pay more. Until someone finds a way to subsidize the millions of kids playing youth soccer, parents will continue to pay or rely upon parent-volunteers who are hard to fire despite very uneven coaching performance.

    • I was a substitute teacher for several years in elementary schools in the San Diego area. In Latino area schools, you do see soccer at recess and after school. You see the type of play that you see in many other countries with pick up games, small groups of friends kicking it around, etc. These kids aren’t part of the pay to play system because they generally come from families who can’t afford it. Ramos wonders about the worth of high school teams. I think they are the avenue for this type of kids and I have seen some very good players and teams in Southern California high schools. From San Diego players like Joe Corona and Paul Arriola fit into this group and Jorge Villafana, as I recall, was playing in high school at an LA area school when he won a tryout with Chivas USA.

  8. The problems is that the Teams in MLS continue to play foreigners and dont trust our young guys, look a good example of that if Toronto FC Ako its going PSV to play and he couldnt even get into the field, he to me was hinder to debelop, this is one example of many more.


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