The U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team is set to square off against Canada, Scotland and Azerbaijan next week in the 2012 Marbella Cup in Spain and ussoccer.com caught up with head coach Tab Ramos before the team departs for the country’s southern Mediterranean coast. Ramos spoke about the upcoming opponents, a couple new selections for the team and scouting the U-18 MNT during its European camp in September.
ussoccer.com: What factors went into putting the roster together for this particular trip?
Tab Ramos: “For this trip in particular, there was no specific thought in terms of needing to select a certain percentage of players from any one camp that we’ve had. I think this was good opportunity for us to call in the guys who are playing in Europe. It’s a FIFA date, so everyone stops and they’re all so close over there that the clubs are more likely to let them go. This team doesn’t necessarily reflect the team that will be qualifying in February.”
ussoccer.com: What can you tell us about the teams you’ll be facing at the 2012 Marbella Cup?
TR: “I’ve gone through the rosters of the teams. The Scottish team is mostly players based in Scotland. The Canadian team has eight players who played for the Vancouver Whitecaps Residency program, which we know from the U.S. Soccer Development Academy here and they are very good players. I really don’t know a whole lot about the Azerbaijan team other than we played them in November, but that was their older Under-21 team. I’m not really concerned with the other teams. I’m more concerned with our players and how they perform. A lot of these players will be very important for us moving forward.”
ussoccer.com: You handed Zack Steffen and Shane O’Neill their first call-ups to the U-20 MNT. What have you seen from them over the last couple months to warrant the call?
TR: “Shane O’Neill was on my radar already this summer. I went to watch him at the showcase in June and he got injured and had to go home after the first day. The goal was to watch him play in three games at the showcase and then bring him to the Milk Cup. Now, I’ve spoken with Colorado and he’s playing more consistently and I think he’s probably back in form and I definitely wanted to see him with us and what he looks like playing center back for us. Zack is really one of those guys where, at this point, he’s at a very good level. He’s a ’95 and, even though the main concern is qualifying for the World Cup, we also want to be looking at what’s coming down the road and what the core of the next cycle is going to be. To me, it looks like Zack Steffen is going to be one of those guys and we want to start bringing him along when we can. For qualifiers, we will have three goalkeepers, so there’s a good chance he’ll be one of the keepers in that group.”
ussoccer.com: You recently spent time with the U.S. Under-18 MNT during its European camp in September. What did you see from that team that can help you when looking toward the future?
TR: “I thought they played well as a team. Their understanding of the tactics was excellent; their performance in practice was excellent. They play hard and understand all the concepts and they are willing to do what it takes. I’m really encouraged with that group. Javier (Perez) is doing a great job with them and I think it will be an easier transition for that group going into the U-20s in the next cycle.”
ussoccer.com: There are players coming in from clubs in the U.S., Mexico and Europe. How closely are you able to monitor their progress at their specific clubs throughout the season?
TR: “I’ve had a chance to see most of these players play. I’ve seen everyone, other than Shane O’Neill, so I know where they fit into our program. It’s important to bring along for the first time somebody like Marc Pelosi who has had to deal with a number of injuries throughout the last 12 months that really have kept him from coming into the team. I know what they can give and how much they have and how competitive these players are.”
ussoccer.com: A handful of players have seen first-team minutes with their respective clubs this year. That has to be a big benefit to the Under-20 Men’s National Team program.
TR: “It’s tremendous for us because that experience, in terms of qualifying games or World Cup games, it’s invaluable. There’s no question guys like Anthony Brooks, Luis Gil, Jose Villarreal or even Jerome Kiesewetter at Stuttgart – even though he isn’t playing on the first team – these are guys that are very valuable for us down the road. I’m hoping as the year goes by that also other guys get opportunities. I know Benji Joya has already played for the first team (at Santos Laguna); Caleb Stanko is on the verge. Marc Pelosi is really highly considered at Liverpool, obviously that’s a difficult next step for him, but I know Liverpool thinks very highly of him and that he’s close. I think that a lot of these guys are on the verge of becoming somebody in the soccer world and I’m excited to have them around in our camps.”
ussoccer.com: What’s the importance of taking international trips for player and team development?
TR: “I think we can’t get that type of competition at home. The national teams we normally play, not so much at the U-18 age group but certainly at the U-20 age group, are built with professional players, and they’re built with players that are playing day in and day out against men. I think their strength is at a different level than ours. When you look at our team in general, maybe not this team that we gathered together to go to Marbella, but in terms of us putting guys together when we select mostly college guys or especially on the first part of the U-20 cycle when we have mostly Academy players, they’re players who are not used to playing against men day in and day out. I think when they get the opportunity to play the international game they see what that strength is like. It has nothing to do with height or weight or anything like that, it just has to do with strength on the ball and the balance that some of these players have from playing against men at the top levels.”