Tab Ramos was a player ahead of his time. Elegant and artistic, the midfielder blazed a trail in the 1990s, lighting the way for latter-day American creators like Landon Donovan and Clint Dempsey, while helping turn the USA into regional super-powers.
Now 46, Ramos is moulding a young team in his own image as coach of the USA side preparing to compete in Turkey this summer at the FIFA U-20 World Cup. His primary goal is to cultivate the next generation of American talent. “It’s a tricky age group though,” Ramos, likable and candid, told FIFA.com in a recent interview. “Some are just becoming pros and they take it as motivation. Others think hey, 'I’ve arrived' and buy new rims for their cars.”
Ramos’ own road to stardom was far bumpier than the players he coaches today. He emigrated to the States at the age of 11 from Montevideo, Uruguay, where his father played professional football. The Ramos family settled in among the immigrant communities of northern New Jersey. His silky skills and dribbling ability were coveted by local coaches and rare at that time in the States, where football was still largely a fringe sport.
Shortly after gaining US citizenship, Ramos was representing his adoptive home country at the 1983 U-20 World Cup. He was only 15. “I couldn’t believe it; it was like a dream,” he recalled of those early days. His rapid rise continued and his precise play-making helped the US seniors return to the FIFA World Cup™ after a 40-year absence. He played in three finals in a row – Italy 1990, USA 1994 and France 1998 – and the US has not missed out since.
“I’m so proud to have been a part of those teams,” said the diminutive Ramos, who added spice and style to a rigid American soccer culture in his 12-year international career. “We put soccer on the map here in the US. Eric Wynalda, Marcelo Balboa, John Harkes, Tony Meola, we are all part of something special.” Another member of that fraternity of soccer pioneers, Alexi Lalas, remembers Ramos this way: “His touch was delicate and poetic and the power he generated was nuclear.”
The rest of the world will remember Ramos best for being on the wrong end of a vicious elbow from Brazil’s Leonardo at the 1994 World Cup. “I can still feel tightness in that part of my head when the weather is humid,” he admits of the skull fracture that left him unconscious on the pitch in San Francisco, and threatened to end his career. “Maybe I was a little smarter before too, but I don’t know,” he added with a chuckle.
Ramos played abroad at a time when very few Americans did, lining up for Tigres in Mexico and with Real Betis in Spain. But times have changed. “People are watching these kids all the time now,” he said of his side, whose CONCACAF qualifiers were broadcast live on American television. “When I was young, we had to go to someone’s house with a big satellite dish on the roof just to watch the World Cup!”
Being able to see Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo strut their stuff every weekend also poses problems, admittedly only small ones, for Coach Ramos, who works closely with USA senior team boss Jurgen Klinsmann. “They’re doing step-overs all over the place, these kids, which are totally useless most of the time,” Ramos, the first player drafted to MLS when the league began in 1996, said with a generous smile in his voice.
New horizons, expectations
“There’s so much more competition now in the States,” said Ramos, who has five players in his squad who are already with overseas clubs. “In the past, if you could keep possession of the ball you were guaranteed a spot, but now I have a 100 kids who can do that. So, we’re looking for the ones who can penetrate, who can change a game.”
The US U-20s played their qualifiers for the 2013 FIFA U-20 World Cup on hostile territory in Mexico. But following their coach’s attacking gospel, they pressed the hosts to extra-time in the final to cap an impressive tournament. “Our main job was to reach the World Cup (in Turkey this summer),” said Ramos, his team scoring ten goals in five games and finishing runners-up. “But we weren’t afraid to go out and try to win games. We played with courage and gave ourselves chances to win.”
One of Ramos’ true protégés is Benji Joya. The little live-wire midfielder revives nostalgic echoes of Ramos himself. “There wasn’t a lot of interest in Joya last year,” Ramos said of the teenager, who has already made his first team debut for Mexican powers Santos Laguna. “MLS didn’t want him and he went on his own to Mexico to see what would happen. He was only playing average then, but we saw something special in him and he’s turned into a big player for us.”
The coach pauses to reflect. “This is the biggest part of the job,” said Ramos, who compares coaching at U-20 level to fatherhood. “You need to follow hunches and find the players who are going to grow for you and do the work.”
The Americans’ first game at the U-20 World Cup is a tough one against tournament favourites Spain. “It doesn’t matter if it’s Spain,” Ramos said. “You have to get a result.” There’s no telling just how far the Stars and Stripes can go in Turkey, but the future of American soccer is in the safe hands of a past master.