ANDY SCHREUR - Friday, December 21, 2012
US U-20 coach Tab Ramos is optimistic heading into the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which begins February 18th and will be held in Mexico.
This week's camp in Sunrise, Florida marks the last camp of 2012 and the first since the US learned who their opponents will be in the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship, held in Mexico.
The US was drawn into Group A and will face Haiti and Costa Rica at the Estadio Olímpico C.U. in Puebla. The top four teams in the tournament go on to the U-20 World Cup in Turkey. In the current format the top two teams in every group advance to the quarterfinals and the winners of the quarterfinal games advance to the World Cup. Should the US advance from Group A, they will face either Canada, Nicaragua, or Cuba in the quarterfinals.
There will be added pressure on Ramos' team this cycle. The US U-20 team failed to qualify for the last World Cup in 2011 and the U-23 team failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympics, despite high hopes. Ramos was adamant that the past struggles do not influence his confidence level going into the 2013 World Cup.
"You know, I want to win every game that I'm involved with and I want to succeed. And I want the players here to succeed," Ramos told YA in Florida. "For them, more than just being on the U-20 team, this is a very good step for them to move on to the senior national team and I'm hopeful that a lot of the players will be decade-long national team players. Having said that, I don't feel any added pressure because we're doing the absolute best we can with the group every day and I think that's all we can do."
Ramos was clear that hard work in camp is the most important aspect going into the tournament. He also admitted that putting a team together is a difficult task with player's spread out across the globe and only holding camps once every few months. Regarding the December camp, he is excited about the team's progress during their week of training.
"[The camp is going] Very well, very well. Obviously, as usual, we don't have everybody we'd like to have here but we're very happy with the group that we have here and they're working very hard, so we're happy with what we've seen."
Despite not having all the pieces in place, Ramos and the coaching staff are confident that the team understands the coaching style, philosophy and techniques that they're trying to instill.
"So far I think we're understanding the concepts," he added. "It's difficult to make, because you only see the players once every couple of months, it's difficult to make a team out of it. I think when you take that into consideration, I think we've done a pretty good job playing united and playing the same way and understanding the concepts."
The opportunity to see players only once every few months is a challenge for youth teams. Ramos talked openly about the struggles with injury, timing and club releases that can make building a U-20 National Team and preparing for tournaments difficult. Due to this, it appears as though the final roster selection will come right down to the end.
"Look, our team right now is 35 players and it will be 35 players all the way to February. Because, in the end, you don't know exactly the players you get, you don't know the injuries you're going to have. Like for this camp, just injury alone, [Victor] Pineda's not here, [Omar] Salgado's not here, [Walker] Zimmerman, Will Packwood and [John Anthony] Brooks, so I think the last thing you have to do is worry about who's not here so that's why the roster's 35. Not available? You call the next guy and kind of put it together. I'm pretty comfortable that the top 35 guys we have can come in at any time and help us," Ramos explained.
Surely Ramos hopes that the aforementioned John Anthony Brooks is one of the 35 on the roster spot in February. Long regarded as one of the top young players in the US system, the German-born Brooks has not been able to participate this year with the US team due to the unwillingness of his club, Hertha Berlin, to release him for international duty.
In an effort to secure is release in camps, World Cup qualifying, and potentially the World Cup, Ramos recently traveled to Germany to discuss the matter with Hertha officials and Brooks himself.
"We had a great meeting with the club-with the coach, assistant coach, Michael Preetz, who is the Director and with John Anthony Brooks as well," Ramos said. "He's excited to play for us, he wants to play for us - at least that's what he told me. I know he's had a couple of opportunities with Germany earlier this year and he should take advantage of all the opportunities at this point, but obviously, we know that Germany did not qualify for the U-20 World Cup, that his opportunity to play in the World Cup would be with us. I think that door's still open and we're hopeful that in the end that he will be here."
Ramos said that he's optimistic that Brooks would be with the US at the U-20 World Cup in February but that it depended on the club, injuries and a number of scenario's that can arise between now and then.
In addition to Brooks, Ramos also acknowledged that US eligible Adam Henley, who was not released by Blackburn Rovers to participate in the camp, may at some point suit up for the U-20 team. The Tennessee-born right back made his Premier League debut last season at just 17 years old. This season he has emerged as a starter for the club, now in the Championship, and recently signed a five year contract.
Henley has been playing the youth national teams of Wales but Ramos believes that playing for the United States is indeed a possibility.
"We've had some conversations back and forth, sometimes initiated by us, sometimes initiated by his [Henley's] people," Ramos revealed. "We are both hopeful that at some point we meet and that there's something here for him."
Keeping track of all players consistently is a constant struggle for Ramos and his staff. The World Cup veteran explained his process for helping the player's understand this and how to make an impact to the US coaching staff.
"From a coaching staff standpoint, and this is one of the things we tell all the players constantly: we don't get to see them all the time," Ramos explained. "That's very difficult for us. At the same time, we do get to remember the last time they were here [in camp]. That's why we emphasize that it's very important for them to make a good impression while they're here and in every practice they get and I think so far they've done that and unfortunately, we have to rely on that more than anything else."
Ramos is confident that no matter who is on the final roster, the hard work from the 2012 camps and the talent pool of the top 35 players will be sufficient going into the CONCACAF tournament in early 2013. Ramos' expectations are high for the U-20 squad, whoever might be in it.
US Soccer has not confirmed whether there will be another U-20 camp in January ahead of the tournament. The last camp of 2012 will conclude when the US will scrimmage the Venezuelan U-20 team in Miami on Friday, December 21st.