Press Pass: U-20 Head Coach Ramos Talks USA Roster, U-20 World Cup

U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team head coach Tab Ramos held a teleconference on Tuesday, May 9 to discuss his final roster for the 2017 FIFA U-20 World Cup in Korea Republic. The USA will open its World Cup campaign against Ecuador on Monday, May 22 (4 a.m. ET; FS1).

Opening statement:
“We’re excited to be able to provide another great opportunity for our players. Attending and playing in a World Cup against the best players in their age in the world is a great experience for them. We’re also very proud that for the first time we get to travel to a World Cup as champions of our region. I’m looking forward to seeing how the team responds to that. Normally, we like to play the underdog role, and in this case, we remain underdogs but we go there as champions. I hope that we can really take this new experience as a good one and that this becomes more the norm rather than the exception. As far as the roster is concerned, I’m very happy with the roster that we have. As all of you know, this is a talented age group. In regards of whether we can say, ‘Is someone missing? Is someone not here? Or who else we could have to make the team better?’ I still think that the guys that are here will represent us well and that we have a good team.”

On how much opposition was received from European clubs for the release of players:
“To be fair, it’s always difficult to get players released. I think this time around we’ve developed some very good relationships with the European clubs as we have with M.L.S. clubs. This time more than any other time, we have players in M.L.S. who are actually playing for the first team and getting a lot of playing time. I have to say that M.L.S. has been great to us, and the relationship between U.S. Soccer and M.L.S. continues to grow. They’ve done a good job in recognizing that this is a good opportunity for their players, so I’d like to thank them.

In terms of the European clubs, we didn’t get any cooperation from Schalke at all, and we had very little cooperation from Fiorentina about Josh Perez. Other than that, we’ve gotten all the cooperation that we needed. There’s been some concessions on our side and some on theirs, and we’ve worked together pretty well.”

On the health status of defender Cameron Carter-Vickers:
“In terms of Cameron’s injury, at this point he’s been running and working mostly on fitness. We are hoping that within the next three-to-four days he’s going to continue to make progress and be available to us possibly early next week.”

On the players who weren’t part of qualifying, specifically Josh Sargent and Lagos Kunga: 
“The guys who were not in qualifying that we have in the group here are our third goalkeeper Brady Scott – he’s a ’99 so he’s currently the number one keeper in our U-18 National Team. We’ve tried to do the best we can over the last couple of cycles to bring up as a third goalkeeper for different experiences what would potentially be our next number one goalkeeper for the following U-20 group. Then we have Derrick Jones, a player from Philadelphia Union that we wanted to include for qualifying but his FIFA paperwork took a little bit longer, so we couldn’t include him until now but he’s played for us before. We have Lagos Kunga, a younger player who’s coming through from Atlanta United, who has a lot of energy, speed, and can take players on. He’s an honest worker and has all the tools to make a lot of progress over the next one-to-two years. I think he can help us here, that’s why he’s on the team. Obviously, everybody knows Gideon. Gideon Zelalem was in the last U-20 World Cup and we welcome him back. He played a couple of games for us in October.

And finally, Josh Sargent. John Hackworth and I have been discussing Josh for the last six months, trying to provide better and more competitive opportunities for him from a National Team standpoint. We discussed even the possibility of him going to qualifying with the U-20’s, but at the time we thought we wanted to leave the U-17 team alone and have him go to the CONCACAF Championship to help the team qualify for the World Cup, and he did a great job with that. So now we moved him up, and he’s already been in January Camp with us this year, so we know Josh fairly well at this level and I think he’ll do a great job. In the end, whether he plays the U-17 World Cup after this or not, I think the possibility will be there but it’s sort of the same scenario with Christian Pulisic and us. Some players sometimes outgrow their age group and they have to move on. We have to remember that the Youth National Teams are here to provide a good development experience internationally and I think Josh will get that with us hopefully, so let’s see what the future brings.”

On what he’s seen from Derrick Jones so far with the Philadelphia Union and what he hopes to see from him in this tournament:
“I watched Derrick Jones play in the USL last year pretty much the whole season. Not every game, but most games. Derrick did really well and that is why we called him to the National Team back in October. The rest has really been about paperwork. Derrick was with us all of January and in our full preseason cam, and we just couldn’t get the paperwork done in time for qualifying. Derrick Jones has been with us for a while now, and I’m very impressed with what he’s been able to do with the first team at the Union. Obviously, they haven’t been in a great situation to start and that’s difficult for a young player, but I think he’s done a great job and we expected that because he’s a good player.”

On including Cameron Carter-Vickers on the roster and how that affects Auston Trusty’s chances with the team:
“As far as Cameron is concerned, he was with us last month. He got injured with us, playing in the friendlies we had in England, so he’s been with us recently and he is close to coming back. In terms of Auston Trusty, he knows exactly what situation he’s in here. We have two center backs that we have called in, one is Cameron and the other one is Justen Glad, who have been injured. There’s a possibility that one of them won’t make it to the World Cup, and if they don’t, we have full confidence that Auston will do a great job. We have been very fortunate in this age group that we have quite a few center backs that we would feel comfortable putting on the field at any time, and Auston is certainly one of those. He’s here with us, but that’s the scenario with Cameron.”

On the selected players’ chances of being called to the full National Team by the 2018 World Cup:
“I certainly hope there is a chance, but I am not going to mention names because that has to be proven on the field. We have quite a few young players that are making their name in MLS and I think if they were to have a good U-20 World Cup, have good international games and then go back to their clubs and do well, certainly. Bruce has the door open to every player who’s capable of making a difference for the first team.”

On how this group will play differently than the group we saw in qualifying:
“The team is not a whole lot different. We now have Gideon in the center of the field and that will help us because he is a great possession player. We have to get him to make the game-winning type plays, so hopefully we get that. I think we have to recognize that a couple of months down the road now, we have Brooks Lennon with a lot more experience than he had two months ago. He’s been playing in M.L.S., getting 90 minutes almost every game, so we expect a lot more from him. [Emmanuel] Sabbi has been training a lot now -- he was in a difficult situation with Las Palmas, so he was not really fit in qualifying -- but I think we’ll get the best of him in this tournament. Then, I think Luca de la Torre will do a great job, and Sebastian Saucedo as well. He’s playing a lot for RSL and getting that experience in the first division. And obviously, we can’t forget about Josh Sargent. Josh can make an impact on this team.

Do I expect more from us? I absolutely expect more. We led the CONCACAF tournament in shots on goal. I think we had something like 81 shots and the second team had around 60, and yet we didn’t even lead the tournament in scoring. That says that we were not great up front in CONCACAF and we have to get better in the World Cup, because chances are that we won’t get as many opportunities.”

On the makeup of the roster and where Erik Palmer-Brown will play:
“This is not 100 percent resolved for us yet due to all the injures on the roster, but at this point, the idea is to have Erik Palmer-Brown play at the center back position. He is a center back. In CONCACAF, we were able to get away with him playing in the number six position, because he’s good enough to play that position. I do believe that he’s good enough to play that position down the road, but whether we are going to require or need that from him in this particular tournament, I’m not sure. I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to put him in that position if we had to, but at this point the idea is to have him play center back.”

On Gedion Zelalem’s form and how much he will rely on him given his experience:
“We’re going to rely on him a lot. At this point I have to say in the last World Cup, although he was theoretically one of our big names, now he’s on the older side of the age group and he needs to be one of our leaders. We expressed that to him and so he has to be one of the guys that makes a difference for us. We’ve seen him practice now for the last three or four days and fitness-wise, he’s in a good place and playing-wise, he looks very good. At this point, obviously we haven’t played a game yet because the team is just coming in. This afternoon will be the first time we have a practice. We’ll actually have 18 players here this afternoon, so it will be the first one, but Gedion has looked very good and we’re excited about that.”

On Tyler Adams’ improvement and expectations for him in Korea Republic:
“That’s a very good question. It’s hard to say exactly what my expectations are because Tyler just keeps getting better and better. I almost want to set the bar for him so high that he can’t reach it. That’s difficult to do with such a young player because he is one of the younger players here. Tyler’s physical ability to cover ground and mental strength are really amazing for a young player. I certainly have not had, and I don’t want to put players behind him, but he is one of a kind. He’s certainly a very aggressive, young player and one we’re hoping has a tremendous impact on the team.”

On Tyler Adams being tested in M.L.S. and whether there is anything that has improved or needs to improve:
“He’s a young player. I think what has been surprising from my end is the fact that he has stepped into a team to play a central midfield role with the New York Red Bulls. I know the Red Bulls probably better than any other team in the league and I’ve watched them the most. He has done a tremendous job, just physically being able to play for a team that pressures high, that covers ground, that likes to have the ball, that likes to counter quickly. He’s fit right into their system and that’s impressive on the physical side for a young player. Now, what does he have to improve on? All these players have a lot to improve and Tyler obviously needs to hold on to the ball better, needs to distribute better -- there’s a number of things that he needs to improve on, but that all comes with time. And it comes with him adjusting to the speed of the game.”

On what Real Salt Lake is doing right that makes them such a contributor of players to the U-20 MNT:
“I really don’t know their formula, I just like good players so I pick them and they happen to be from there. I think the fact that they were one of the first, if not the first club, to have a residency program down in Arizona, I think that’s what has helped them the most and what put them ahead of the curve. By far, they have been the team that produced the most in this particular cycle of the national team. You take all five players they have and any player can be a starter on this team -- I think that’s a lot to say for one club.”

On whether Mukwelle Akale was not ready for the World Cup or if Villarreal wouldn’t release him:
“No, Mukwelle was one of those cases where I’m sitting here and I’m thinking, ‘How did I not pick Mukwelle?’ I mean, that happens every cycle. There are a couple of players every cycle that you look back and you go, ‘Wow.’ I just couldn’t fit him into what we want to do this time. Mukwelle could be here. He was in pretty good form last month and unfortunately there are only so many players we can pick. He certainly was one that is in good form and who could have helped us.”

On the form of Gedion Zelalem:
"Coming in, as I mentioned before, I was a little bit concerned with his form and what that would look like. But after having seen him for the last three or four days here at practice, I'm convinced that he's ready to do a great job for us. So no concerns there. I would have hoped that his career at this point would be a little bit more advanced in terms of, two years ago, he was already at Arsenal and he had already gotten some opportunities with the first team. Here we are two years later and we’re kind of looking at the same type of scenario, but I think after this World Cup he will likely make a move. That's my feeling -- to play first team ball somewhere in Europe if it's not in England alone, he'll move on somewhere else to play."

On not getting players from Schalke and Fiorentina:
"In terms of the Schalke situation and Fiorentina and potentially having those players here, yeah I think Josh [Perez] has been dealing with a little bit of an injury over the last few weeks, so maybe that would have been a more difficult one. But he’s certainly a player that we had pre-selected to come to the U-20 World Cup, except we've never had an opportunity to see Josh with us [in this cycle]. I think, in over a year now, he hasn't been released. That's really difficult to follow a player that's not playing on the first team, who's playing on their U-19's and at the same time we don't get to see him with us. So it would have been a tough pick for us, but one that we would have considered all the way to the end.

As far as Schalke, both Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague were guys that we would have liked to consider. Weston has been doing really well and Nick we like a lot because he’s a one-of-a-kind type winger who can take people on and break teams down, so I like both a lot. But we weren’t really given options with Schalke. Schalke was pretty straight forward in terms of, 'Our U-19's are more important than your national team, and so they are going to stay here until we are done playing.’ So that's something for other young players to look at. When they go to Europe, sometimes you're going to sign for a club which thinks that your national team is not that important at the youth level. So you have to deal with that."

On how the three returning players, and the entire team, has grown since the 2015 last World Cup:
"If I go one-by-one, I take Cameron Carter-Vickers. At the last World Cup, he was playing for the Tottenham U-23's, sometimes for their Under-19's. At times, he was captain of the U-23's, so he was starting to make progress. Obviously, this time around, he's been on Tottenham’s first team and obviously Tottenham is one of probably the top ten teams in the world today so that's a great place to be. He's playing with amazing players every day. Unfortunately, because of that, he hasn't been able to play as many games as he played the year before. So he's gone from playing anywhere between 40-55 games in a year to now playing only 10 or eight and that's difficult for a young player. So we've had to manage a little bit of that and that's why we've called him to a couple camps to see if we could provide him with a couple opportunities for getting him some extra games. Tottenham has been great with us, because they feel like the physiological part of the game is really important and Cameron is happy when he comes with us and he needs that. He needs the 90-minute games and so that's helped him.

“Erik Palmer-Brown is a completely different player than he was two years ago. He's really matured. Unfortunately, as you may have seen, he was injured in the final of CONCACAF and so he went back to Kansas City really not ready to compete for a first team spot as much as we would have liked. But I think certainly he is one of the best talents that we have, moving forward. Not only as a center back, but also as a number six, depending on the type of set up a team can have. He's incredibly talented, he's got great size. He's fast and obviously he’s a good soccer player overall.

“We just spoke about Gideon. He's made progress as well and a lot of his progress has been physical. He's much taller now. He can hold onto the ball even better now and I think he will have a little bit more of an impact in the games than he had the last World Cup. Although at the last World Cup, I thought he was excellent for us, with the type of team that we had.”

On how Eryk Williamson has stepped up to be able to compete with professionals despite still being a college player:
"As far as Eryk Williamson, Eryk just keeps surprising me every day I see him and I wonder how he's still in college. I went to watch him at a couple of games and to be fair, he didn't stand out that much in college. I went to watch a couple of Maryland games and the one specific game that I went to that was in New Jersey against Rutgers, I think he got subbed in and out of the game ether four or five times. For the type of game that we play internationally, it’s difficult to prepare yourself by getting subbed in and out that many times and I think that happens to a lot of college players. But having said that, he has one of the softest feet that I've seen with the National Teams in the last seven or eight years and that's something that I value a lot. And at the same time, he has great physical abilities. So Eryk is doing great for us and potentially he could be a starter, starting next week as well.”

On if his players looked comfortable defending and counterattacking at the CONCACAF U-20 Championship:
"No not at all, actually. We are not comfortable defending and I don't want us to be comfortable defending. I want us to have the ball. This is why we press high and this is why we try to win the ball as quickly as possible. If you ever find us defending, it's not because we want to, it's because we have to. Sometimes teams will connect passes and they force you to fall back a little bit. But it's not something that we're doing. As a matter of fact, when we meet with all the U.S. Soccer Youth National Team coaches, and we've had quite a few of these meetings, we talk about having a proactive type style in which we want to come after people. If you watched our Under-17's [at the CONCACAF U-17 Championship] it was no different. They came out, they pressed the ball, they tried to have the ball the whole time in the tournament, they were creating opportunities. Maybe the second half in the final against Mexico, they had a little bit more of the ball and that's going to happen at times. It’s not because it's something that we do, but it could be something that happens in the game."

On if he expects to continue with the same tactical approach in the World Cup from qualifying:
"Yes, because this is what fits our culture best. This is who we are, better than anything else. Our players want to make an effort. Our players want to work hard. Our players want to work for each other. They want to suffer for each other. They want to be in the battles and so I don't think we have a culture of players who just want to wait, sit back and counter. I just don't think it's how we are. So we're coming after people and sometimes we are going to win and sometimes we are going to lose."

On how Lagos Kunga earned a spot on the roster and his role on the team:
"Lagos only came to one camp, but he impressed us so much in the camp. He can do it all. He gets forward really well with speed. He understands the game. He has passion for the game. He loves this. You can tell that he can’t wait to get on the field every day and he makes plays. He takes people on, down the side. He gets balls in the box. He'll come back and defend if he has to. So he can do it all. The risk for us is that he may be a little bit green, in terms of his international experience, but I like the upside of what he has to offer and I'm hoping that this international experience will make him something even better for when he goes back to play for Atlanta."

On the challenges leading up to playing Ecuador:
"It’s definitely a difficult challenge. With the players that are here we've already talked about how this tournament certainly is different than the CONCACAF tournament. I always feel that the CONCCACAF tournament is long and we can plan that way because I think we have the talent to be able to plan for a long tournament. In the World Cup, any team can beat you. Certainly by getting the runner-up team in South America as the first team that we play, we already start with a final. So in this tournament we cannot afford to gradually get better. We have to come in already, 13 days from now, and play the first final. There is no other way. Ecuador has a very potent attack, they can counter really well and so our pressure, if it gets broken at different times, they could create some difficult opportunities for us, just like they did when they beat Argentina 3-0 and when they tied Brazil 3-3. They are extremely dangerous up front, but I think this will be a great experience for us and it's a game that we have to come out and that we feel that we have to win."