HISPANIC HERITAGE: Tab Ramos and His Remarkable Contributions to Soccer in the United States

Michael Lewis

When he emigrated to the United States from Uruguay at the age of 11 in 1978, Tab Ramos wasn't necessarily a happy camper.

 

He was wondering why his father had taken his family from a soccer-crazed land to a country that didn’t have a greater appreciation and acceptance of the sport.

 

His transition wasn't exactly a smooth one.

"At the time, soccer was at a different place,” he said. “The U.S. just had the NASL and the Cosmos. It wasn't like it was considered a world league. I remember telling my dad: 'Why out of all the countries in the world, we had to go to the one that didn't really have soccer?' So that was a big hit for me. Soccer was like everything to me and to move to a country where I felt soccer didn't exist was really tough."

 

Little did Ramos, who turned 12 several days later, realize what an impact he would make in U.S. soccer history as a player and coach for club and country.

 

The former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team head coach who currently guides the Houston Dynamo, the attacking midfielder forged his reputation as one of the best American players of all time. When he guided the USA at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, he wrote his name into international soccer history by participating in his record-tying 11th FIFA event as a player and head coach. He also went to the 2014 FIFA World Cup as an assistant coach. His achievements were recognized in 2005 when he was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame.


 

Tab Ramos’ Participation in a Record 11 FIFA Events

Competition

Player

Coach

FIFA World Cup

1990, 1994, 1998

2014 (assistant)

FIFA U-20 World Cup

1983

2013, 2015, 2017, 2019

FIFA Confederations Cup

1992

-

FIFA Futsal World Cup

1989

-

Summer Olympics

1988

-

 


"I was by nature a risk taker, which is the same way I go into my coaching now," he said. "I'm a risk taker for making plays and that's how I played. Fortunately, I lost the ball very little, but I was always playing forward. I was always trying to make a play for someone else. I was always trying to find space so someone else could find a run."

 

While Ramos is a member of the legendary Kearny, N.J. trio with John Harkes and Tony Meola that played a vital role on the USA's 1990 and 1994 FIFA World Cup teams, his early soccer days in the states were lonely. His family first called Harrison, N.J. home.

 



WATCH: Ramos, Harkes, Meola Hail From Soccer Town USA



 

The Ramos family lived on Sussex Street in Harrison, only five blocks from where Red Bull Arena now stands. Ramos biked past what was a factory site on countless occasions.

 

He practiced by himself. "When I came to the U.S. I spent the first six to eight months not playing soccer," he said. "I would just go to the playground and play by myself because I didn't know anyone. I barely spoke English."

 

Ramos learned the language before helping turn around the fortunes of St. Benedict's Prep in Newark, N.J., which had an ordinary soccer program before becoming a soccer powerhouse.

 

"They had never won anything," Ramos said. "When I went there. they were coming off a poor season. My freshman year we had a winning season. I don't know how many goals I scored, but it was a lot. It started to change. I happened to be at the beginning of what St. Benedict's has become."

Ramos' high school stats were unreal. He scored 161 career goals, including 57 as a senior. He was a two-time high school All-American and was named the 1983 Parade Magazine national high school player of the year.

 

Future USMNT teammates Claudio Reyna and Gregg Berhalter, the current USMNT head coach, later attended St. Benedict's, continuing its winning tradition.

 

Despite his original reluctance of moving to the USA, Ramos made an impact at 15, helping the U.S. Under-20 team qualify for the FIFA World Youth Championship. He scored twice in the Concacaf tournament, including in extra time in a 3-1 semifinal win against host Guatemala. At 16, Ramos wore the Red, White and Blue at the championship in Mexico in 1983.

 

"It was excitement, but mixed feelings at the same time," he said. "I had been in the country for three years. I didn't necessarily feel American. I felt like I was Uruguayan. I felt like that was where my football was from and that's sort of who I wanted to be. Nevertheless, I was really excited to be participating on a national team. I was speaking English by then, but I was basically new to the country and representing in World Cup qualifying, which at the time was a little bit strange."

After attending North Carolina State University and competing in the 1988 Olympics, the 5-7, 140-lb. Ramos helped the U.S. qualify for the 1990 FIFA World Cup, the country's first appearance in the tournament in 40 years. 

 

“You want to be playing against the best and playing in the World Cup is obviously a dream come true for every player, regardless how great they are or average they are,” he said. “Representing your country in the World Cup is the ultimate. We were awarded the 1994 World Cup. We didn't want to go to 1994 without ever having participated in a World Cup with no experience. So, it was really important to qualify.” 

 

Playing the hosts in Rome at Italia ‘90 was Ramos’ top career moment. “It was the first time I truly felt I had arrived in the world of soccer and that's what I always dreamed about,” he said

That World Cup afforded Ramos and teammates chances to play overseas. 

 

"It was a great opportunity," he said, adding that he had two offers, one with Roda JC Kerkrade in the Dutch Eredivisie and another with Figueres in the Spanish Segunda Liga. "I thought for my style of play and where I wanted to get to, Spain would be better for me. I felt like going to Spain was really going to be a game changer for me."

 

It was, until an incident during the 1994 FIFA World Cup changed things. Ramos and the USMNT got out of their group after an historic 2-1 win against Colombia before meeting Brazil in the Round of 16. Ramos suffered a fractured skull when Leonardo elbowed him in the face in a 1-0 loss.

 

"Unfortunately, that changed the course of my career," he said.

 

By then, Ramos had transferred to Real Betis, which had gained promotion to La Liga. But the injury sidelined him for four months, knocking Ramos out of a starting spot.

 

"They went their own way and signed other players and I found myself on the outside looking in, even though I had two years remaining,” he said. “I was 27, I didn't want to be a bench player, although the coach said he wanted me there."

 

He joined Tigres in Mexico from 1995-96 before becoming the very first player signed by Major League Soccer.

 

Ramos had to endure several injuries in the latter part of his career, including a pair of ACL injuries. His comeback from the knee injury was one for the ages, scoring the lone goal in a 1-0 World Cup qualifying against Costa Rica in Portland in September 1997.

 



WATCH: USMNT 1, Costa Rica 0 – Sept. 7, 1997



 


"It was a big game because if we didn't win that home game, we would have been in trouble for qualifying," Ramos said. "That home game gave us an opportunity to stay at the top or towards the top of the table. It was a big game for me because I had been out for six or seven months with a knee injury and this was my first game back. It was nice to be able to contribute to the team in a big way."

 

After starting and helping the USMNT defeat Barbados, 4-0, in a do-or-die qualifier in November 2000 that propelled the team into the Concacaf hexagonal for the 2002 FIFA World Cup, Ramos decided to hang up his international boots. He represented the USA 81 times, which included eight goals and three World Cups.

 

Under head coach Bruce Arena, Ramos was essentially a late-game substitute in qualifying and he realized he wasn't going to be a starter in the World Cup.

 

"I had small children at home and I already had played at three World Cups," he said. "To be fair, I really didn't care that much in participating in a fourth World Cup as a sub. I really didn't want to move forward with the team, not being in the starting 11. Bruce was very supportive. After the game, everybody signed the ball for me and that was the end of it."

After a seven-year run with the MetroStars Ramos retired on his own terms for the second time in his career. Early during the 2002 MLS campaign, Ramos announced his intention to retire, playing the rest of the way as captain.

 

"I am really happy both in my professional career and my national team career that I was able to call my own shots,” he said. “I called my own retirement when I felt I wasn't important enough to the team.

 

“I wanted to be able to call my own shots and not for everybody to tell me: ‘It’s time you start to realize you can't play anymore,’” he added with a laugh.

 

Ramos didn't have any inclination to coach until after he retired. In 2004, he and some partners formed the NJ04 club in Aberdeen, N.J., which won several championships. His learning curve was immense.

 

"If I had to put it in one word, it would be patience," he said. "Coaching is a process. It's constant learning. Every day is new. I retired as a player not thinking that I would ever coach, where a lot of people who become coaches have been thinking about it from the moment they're playing. It wasn't like that for me. I only picked up coaching when I decided I loved the game too much to be away from it. Then I took my “B” license. I loved it and then I realized I didn't know much about the game and I needed to learn it. Then I took my “A” license and I learned more."

 

He has coached for 16 years. "I see myself more than as a coach probably I saw myself as a player," Ramos said.

 

As a coach, Ramos, 54, is best known for his eight-year run with the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team. He guided the Americans into four U-20 World Cups, winning the Concacaf title twice and reaching the quarterfinals an unprecedented three straight times. From a development angle, 24 different players that went to a U-20 World Cup with Ramos have since earned caps with the USMNT.
Tab Ramos instructs current USMNT forward Paul Arriola during the 2015 U-20 World Cup Cycle

"I have to say it was an absolute blast for me," he said. "I loved it. I loved coaching American kids. American players have this great desire to overachieve and it's a shame to see us underachieve at times."

 

Because of those aforementioned U-20 achievements, Ramos said that "I felt like we became champions. I felt I walked into a program that was just an okay program, which we sometimes had good results and sometimes bad. I felt I left a consistent program that was a championship program. I am proud of the fact that all the guys who played for me with the U-20s left like champions. For me, that's the greatest accomplishment."

 

His latest challenge is with the Dynamo. The COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world upside down in Ramos' first year on the job. He has tried to build the team in his image.

 

"I'm surrounded with good people,” Ramos said. “I like the passion of the fans of Houston. I feel like I'm in a great place. The results haven’t been all that great, but we've changed the way the team played. We are more aggressive … where we want to be on the front foot. We want to attack. We want to create opportunities and so that culture has changed here a little bit. ... We're moving in the right direction."

 

Courtesy Getty Images

As a Hispanic immigrant who has thrived during his time in the USA, Ramos doesn’t need to be reminded of the contributions from Hispanic players in the USA.

 

"I feel like it's grown tremendously," he said. "There were very little opportunities when I was growing up. There are more and more opportunities today. When you look at the youth national teams, there's a big number of Hispanic players on the teams. ... The country has changed. MLS has gone out to South America and Central America to find talent. I'm really happy where we are. Hispanic players are showing the quality and its coming through.

 

"On a personal front, who would have thought about when I was 12-years-old, didn't speak English and I find myself now the person with the most World Cups in the history of this country? I would never have guessed that."