By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Feb 17, 2017) US Soccer Players - Tab Ramos and his USMNT U-20s step into the spotlight this weekend. On Saturday, they kick off what could be a perilous World Cup qualifying campaign in Costa Rica.
As is often the case with big youth national team events, this tournament represents equal parts opportunity and risk for coach and players alike. Strong displays can catapult careers. The high-profile setting can also easily magnify shortcomings and disappointments. The young Yanks meet Panama on Saturday (3:30pm ET, Univision Deportes) in the first of what could be as many six games in 16 days at the 2017 CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
This is Ramos’s third World Cup cycle with the U-20s. He’s led the team to successful qualification on both previous occasions, a correction from the stinging failure to do so under Thomas Rongen in 2011. Outings in the main events were markedly different. The US couldn't get out of a group with Spain, France, and Ghana at Turkey 2013. They did better in New Zealand two years ago, losing in the quarterfinals on penalties to eventual champions Serbia.
Ramos has generally shown a steady hand at the helm alongside a few questionable choices. This time around, they’ll have to contend with a rising tide of CONCACAF talent among the opposition. A new tournament format injects uncertainty. “We feel like the team is well-prepared. We can’t wait for our [opening] game,” Ramos told reporters in a conference call on Thursday. “I think the group that we have here is ready to compete and is as prepared as either of the last two groups that we’ve had to qualify. … We’re going to go through the bad moments, we’ll have to suffer together, but in the end I know this is a talented group and we should get the job done.”
Ramos can call on much-anticipated prospects like Erik Palmer-Brown, Luca De La Torre, Brooks Lennon, and Emmanuel Sabbi. Yet some of the coach’s preferred overseas-based options, including Gedion Zelalem, Mukwelle Akale, Josh Perez, Weston McKinnie, and Nick Taitague, weren't released by their clubs.
Puzzles hover in several areas of the lineup. The boss has traveled to Central America without a true left back in his squad, after an injury ruled out Marcello Borges (University of Michigan, New York Red Bulls). Ramos maintained on Thursday that he’s “very comfortable” with the options he does have, though. The starting goalkeeper’s role goes to Jonathan Klinsmann, son of the former USMNT coach. A sophomore at Cal, Klinsmann is undoubtedly talented but has yet to prove himself on a stage of this magnitude.
The roster is heavy on center backs, so much so that Palmer-Brown, the captain, will spend time out of position in deep midfield to get him on the field. Up top, Sabbi is a lavishly-skilled livewire, but has not played matches at club level for months as he and his Spanish club Las Palmas wait on his international clearance. Ramos confessed that the “unstable” situation led a to lack of sharpness that nearly got Sabbi dropped from the U-20s’ roster entirely.
In more general terms, Ramos has a tendency to favor a counterattacking style of play that could hand the impetus to opponents and invite pressure on the back line. This level is typically seen as a final finishing school. A U-20 team playing reactive soccer might not dovetail smoothly with the oft-stated goal of more evolved possession.
Ramos says he reminded his charges that the bottom line on the U-20s program is grooming future senior internationals.
“All the players here have the goal of not just being a two-week national team player,” he said. “Our goal for them, and their goal coming here, is for hopefully all of them to become 10-year national team players.”
Ramos cautioned that their opening game will be one of their toughest. He calls Panama, who lost to Mexico in the CONCACAF championship final two years ago, the best team in the 2015 tournament. Other obstacles and potential trap doors await, too.
This year CONCACAF has divvied the 12-team field into three groups of four, with the top two finishers in each group advancing to a second phase of two groups with three teams in each. The top two finishers in each of those groups book a World Cup berth, with the first-place finishers meeting one another in the championship final on March 5.
The system should pack more challenging and meaningful games into the event. It may also present new stumbling blocks.
An opening group of Panama (who beat the US two years ago), Haiti, and St. Kitts & Nevis should pose only modest challenges on the whole. The second group stage could drop Ramos & Co. into two games against the likes of Mexico, Honduras, or the host nation, any of which would be daunting scenarios. That said, if the chips fall more kindly, it could wind up being El Salvador or Canada or Trinidad & Tobago standing between the US and a ticket to South Korea in May.
Some are already linking Ramos with the senior USMNT job. His coaching resume is now long enough to remain in that mix no matter what happens between now and then. A strong run with the U-20s would surely burnish his credentials significantly. Should it materialize in the years to come, a bumper crop of rising talent would do so even further.
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