When one hears the name Tab Ramos in the circles of U.S. Soccer only one word comes to mind, respect. Ramos is a pioneer in many ways, arguably still, one of the most talented players the country has ever produced. One of the few players in a pre-MLS era that was able to play abroad consistently, in Spain and in Mexico, later Ramos became the first player signed by MLS.
At the USMNT level Tab Ramos played in three World Cups (90,94,98) as well as two Copa Americas and the 1989 Futsal World Cup. One of the most endearing memories for Ramos in a U.S. jersey was when he returned from a devastating ACL injury to score against Costa Rica in a 1997 World Cup qualifier in Portland that broke a deadlock and started the U.S. on their way to the World Cup in France.
After coaching within the U.S. Youth National team set up for 10 years between 2009 - 2019, Ramos took on the challenge to coach in MLS, taking over the reins of the Houston Dynamo. After a difficult first season in charge Ramos is preparing for the new season and he sat down with Bolavip to discuss MLS, the USMNT, and the future of the sport he helped pioneer.
Preparing the Houston Dynamo for 2021
Bolavip: You picked up the reins of the Houston Dynamo in 2020, a strange season due to the pandemic, were there a lot of growing pains in that first season?
Tab Ramos: It was disappointing and at times frustrating, I believe we had nine ties last year, and am not exaggerating that we should have won seven of those nine games. We could not win any of them and that of course could be frustrating, because in the end in MLS getting two points here and two points there, had we won just three of those, we would have been in the playoffs. Now it’s time to turn the page, we have a different team, different players, players that want to do well for this club so am excited to start a new season.
BV: Darwin Quintero was probably the most effective player last season, considering his age, is he still the central piece of the team or are you going to have to manage his minutes?
TR: Darwin continues to be a really important part of the team, the team is a little more team focused this year, last year we were a little more individualistic… We had Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, guys who established themselves in the club, who were used to doing things a certain way, and I came, and I wanted to add to that, we added Quintero to that picture, and we were able to create more opportunities and dominate some games, but in the end it did not turn into wins, which is the most important thing… This year the approach is a bit different, we sold Mauro Manotas and Alberth Elis, Darwin is still here but the team has more of a team first focus moving forward.
BV: The Dynamo have two open DP spots, are there plans to bring in players who can fill those slots or are you satisfied with the group going forward?
TR: Well, it’s no secret that in every league in the world teams that spend the most have the best shot at winning in the end and have a successful season. Having said that, I knew when I came here the type of club we were, and also the fact that in MLS it’s about making the playoffs, if you make the playoffs, you have almost the same shot as anybody to win. In one game here, one game there, you get hot in the end and why not us? We are looking to win the championship like everyone else, even though the way we might go about it is a bit different. It is unlikely when the regular season ends that we will have the most points in the league, I don’t think we are deep enough, but it is likely we get into the playoffs and have a shot to win it just like everybody else. Whether in the end we end up adding DP’s or not, that is normally up to the club… am ready to move forward with the team we have, and I think we can surprise people this year.
BV: What has been your stamp on this team, or was that even possible with the way 2020 went due to the pandemic?
TR: I think it was a balance, I came to a club that was used to countering with three up top, and the way I always like to play is to press high and win the ball at the opposing team’s side of the field. So, it was a big adjustment and a big adjustment for me because there came points in the season where I realized that in various games, we had to try different things, knowing that the team was more used to waiting for the opponent and then countering. We went from one end of the spectrum to the other… by the end of the year the team felt comfortable pressing teams and winning the ball back, and we did that pretty well, but the team wasn’t compensated enough to be able to defend well enough in the back sometimes on 1 v 1’s and 2 v 2’s. When you're a high pressing team you're going to find yourself in those situations and we addressed that this year, bringing Tim Parker in was a big deal for us, he is one of those guys that can succeed in an environment like that… slowly we are implementing what we want to do here.
BV: How is your day to day with the team’s youth ranks?
TR: At this point because of protocols, we can’t be scrimmaging our academy teams or our reserve teams, but what we have done is brought up five players from our academy who have been in the preseason with us, for the last two months, we know them well. We brought up our coach from the pre professional phase, that is really our U-19’s at this point, he has been with us for the last two months. In addition to that we also had two players that have already signed at the end of last year, Juan Castilla and Daniel Rios, who were 15 and 16 when they signed. So, we really have seven players from our U-19’s working here with us.
Tab Ramos on the USMNT Program
BV: Speaking of youth, you were the USMNT U-20 coach up until 2019, what is your perception of the USMNT? Pundits have dubbed it the Golden Generation, you worked with many of these players, where do you think the program is at the youth level and going towards the senior side?
TR: There are a lot of good players playing at big clubs, and I think that says a lot because we have never really had so many players playing such a big role at big clubs overseas. So, I think there is no question this is the best moment U.S. Soccer has ever had. I also think the way qualifying is and all the spots available the team shouldn’t really suffer to qualify to get to the World Cup. Those players have had great experiences and they have to come here and do well… all qualifying games are difficult, but I think we have enough talent to qualify with the group that we have.
BV: That seems to be the perception, but the team is very young, and has yet to really play a meaningful game together, is U.S. Soccer putting all its eggs in one basket considering what happened in Olympic qualifying?
TR: Well, I can tell you it was very disappointing seeing that the U-23 team isn’t going to the Olympics. I know the U-23 group was working with the senior team and they all treated it as one big group of players. And we already missed so we are already 0 for 1, so I think going into World Cup Qualifying hopefully the approach will be a little bit different. The one thing you have to look at beyond anything else is you have to get results. Of course, it’s about X’s and O’s but you have to get results at the end of the day.
BV: It seems at times that we, the collective supporter group of U.S. Soccer, are always kicking things further down the road with the USMNT, we have this Golden Generation but there are pundits who are already saying, “They are set up for 2026”, what is the realistic goal for this USMNT?
TR: Well first of all it’s so disappointing that some of those players won’t have that Olympic experience. It is a good experience, and a lot of countries form really good teams for the Olympics, and it would have been perfect for all of those players to have that. What are the expectations? If we have to set goals number one is to qualify. We can’t start setting goals or looking towards 2026 when we didn’t qualify for the last World Cup. We have to look at right now and doing well right now. It’s easy to say, “I have a project for ten years”, but this is not ten years, we have to look at right now and do well right now and we have to qualify. That is the most important part. How well do we do at the World Cup? I don’t know, I was an assistant of Jürgen Klinsmann at the 2014 World Cup, and we were drawn into a group with Germany, who won the whole thing, Portugal with Ronaldo, and Ghana, well we got out of the group and then played Belgium in the second round in a game that of course Belgium was the better team, but there were instances in extra time where we could have won the game. We played three teams who in many ways were better than we were and for some reason it was still considered a failure. If losing to Germany 1-0, who would go on and beat Brazil 7-1 and win the whole thing, tying Portugal, and losing to Belgium in overtime, who could have easily won the whole thing too, if that is considered a failure, then am not sure what our expectations are. Because that World Cup was certainly a success. For me I’d like to see the team go to the World Cup and advance to the second round. A deep run? At the end of the day everyone wants a deep run and only 8 teams have that opportunity the rest lose. It’s that simple.
BV: You got to work with Jürgen Klinsmann, he wanted to make fundamental changes, to some he wanted too much control, to others it is what needed to be done. Was it a difficult time for U.S. Soccer at the upper management level to get his ideas 100 percent across? In a way U.S. Soccer knew what they were getting with Klinsmann. They went looking for him.
TR: If you think about it, what Jürgen wanted to do was make U.S. Soccer more professional. As I became youth director and you think about all the years he was there, we pushed to hire a full-time head coach for every youth national team, which we did. Sunil Gulati supported that, I think what you have to look at is, for me where I was as youth technical director, having Jürgen as head coach of the senior team was great support, because he supported a lot of the ideas I had on youth development, particularly developing those elite players on the national teams, both in the way we played and how those teams trained. I think it’s all those players we have on our team now, they all went through that system. If you look at what Jürgen did on the senior national team, he made sure that all the players knew that the expectations of the senior team were going to be high. He expected the players to play in the best leagues possible. At the time he did push players to play in Europe and now we find ourselves four years later since he left, U.S. Soccer is starting to push and say the same things that Jürgen was saying. So, it’s just starting, but where it’s not starting is our youth national teams, we went from full time youth coaches for every age group, a technical director that ran that to basically nothing. We barely have youth national team coaches, we barely have any staff for youth national teams, so if we are putting all our eggs in one basket and that is the basket of 2026 with the current players we have out there, that’s okay, but we also need to think about the future.
BV: Eventually time catches up to everyone doesn’t it?
TR: We need to think about that right now, we have a strong group of players, but we don’t know where these players will be in two years’ time. It happens, even the best players have three great years and then they fade. Not every player has that great 10-year career, so we have to prepare for that and I think the youth national teams are key for that. I think at the moment we are not preparing for that.
BV: Why do you think it got to that point? On paper it would seem U.S. Soccer was on the rise, there is more exposure for the sport, more MLS teams have academies, the system was never perfect, but it seemed like the pieces were in place.
TR: If you can recall the first thing that happened when the team did not qualify for the 2018 World Cup no one said, “this is a poor team that did not do a good job”, everyone said “We have to blow up U.S. Soccer”. We have to change everything that they (U.S. Soccer) do, change the youth systems… every pundit that I read or heard automatically said that, and as technical director I was thinking, wait a minute, you want to change everything, erase everything, start over, but look at our results of the youth national teams, not just the U-20’s, who made it to the last three quarter finals of the last three youth World Cups, they were CONCACAF champions of the last two cycles, the U-17’s made it to the quarter finals of the U-17 World Cup. We were the only country in the world to have done that. So, there were some great things that put us at the top of the game at the youth level, then many thought that the senior team did not do a good job, let’s blame U.S. Soccer in general and let’s blow the whole thing up.
BV: With the national team now, have fans been spoiled a bit to see so many players at these top clubs? How important is it for Americans to go to Europe and still get opportunities at smaller clubs and not always think that Chelsea, PSG, or Barcelona will come and sign them?
TR: Well, it’s a case-by-case basis and about proving yourself, Sergiño Dest for example (in reference to Barcelona) was spotted by Ronald Koeman to play for the Dutch National team he (Koeman) wanted to have him on board for the Netherlands, so while not personal, there was always interest from a player coach level to have him on his team… In Christian’s (Pulisic) case, he went as a 16 year-old to Dortmund, and paid his dues by going to Europe. He (Pulisic) didn’t get to Chelsea by going from a U.S. youth academy, he went to a big club and got a big transfer because he established himself. And I think for the most part that’s the case… So, it’s not easy to get to a big club, now we have Daryl Dike who is at Barnsley, and now who knows where his next move is, could be to a big club or a smaller club, but he’s proven himself. I think European clubs like the physicality of American players… I think the important part now is that the doors are open, but nothing is guaranteed, every player has to prove themselves.
Tab Ramos on MLS
BV: You were the first player ever signed by MLS; you saw the whole process from where the league started to where it is now. What are your thoughts on where MLS is at and its growth? Is the league growing too much? It will be 30 teams in a few years and indications are the league won’t stop there if it has the chance to grow even more.
TR: Well, this is a really big country, and I think it’s really hard to limit the league to so many teams. If you know there are fan bases that are willing to support a team, I think they should be given the opportunity to have a team if they are going to support it. Then it’s up to the league officials to say, “hey are we going to have three divisions?”, or certain teams do not play each other… The country is big and there are a lot of cities that would want to have a team, in fact I think it (MLS) should get bigger, am looking forward to the day MLS and Liga MX do more together and have the best teams play each other, that would make the league (MLS) blow up.
BV: You played in both leagues (MLS and Liga MX) is it really feasible for both leagues to merge in a way and play a meaningful tournament?
TR: That part I don’t know, but what I can tell you it would be really exciting to have Chivas play LAFC in a meaningful game, to have America play at the Red Bulls in a meaningful tournament. Those are all games that everyone would all want to see, and I think we need that… As the first player signed by the league there are so many things that have happened that I could not believe 25 years ago, so I don’t think something like that is so far out of reach and it would be great for the fans.
BV: Along those lines Copa Libertadores would be an interesting tournament for MLS teams, should MLS still aspire to play in Copa Libertadores?
TR: I think from a competitive standpoint there is no question MLS teams should be playing in Copa Libertadores. I think the best U.S. teams and Mexican teams should be participating, the problem is the distance... From New York to Montevideo, how do you recover from that trip? You need days to recover. Asking players to travel so far to compete in a meaningful game. I can get on a direct flight from Newark to New Delhi, India in 14hrs direct, it’s shorter to travel there than it is to travel to Montevideo… I think at the club level it will be difficult because of that, I do believe at a National team level the USMNT should be participating in Copa America and so should Mexico.
Tidbits with Tab
BV: In the early days of MLS as the league was getting off the ground and stars came into the league like Donadoni, Campos, and Valderrama, the league also had many young American players who were coming and going because it was not economically viable for them to continue to play (due to the low salaries of the league). How was that like trying to glue the team and the league together as it launched?
TR: It was strange, I came into the league having played for Tigres (Liga MX), and you had a lot of international players that were being paid a lot of money, and then you had a lot of players who couldn’t pay their bills. So, it couldn’t work that like that, it was extremely difficult because inevitably you’d had, am not going to include players like Donadoni or Branco here, but eventually there were foreign players who weren’t going to care as much because they were playing with guys who couldn’t really pay their bills, and they (the younger players) really didn’t care that much… These young players were practically just coming out of college, barely having enough money to have a roommate, and were still living the college life with just a little bit of money. Having said that the league had to start somewhere, you did need to have some names, you really can’t look back now and criticize the way it started because it had to start somewhere. The beginnings were hard and that’s why I took a chance on the league. I was happy at Tigres… but I thought it was by obligation to come back to the league and that would encourage other American players to do the same.
BV: Do you think in a way those early years of the league hurt the France 98 World Cup team? In regard to the level of play?
TR: There were other problems, internal problems within the team, but to be honest I don’t think it would have made a difference. We lost to Germany, a team that was better than we were, we lost to Yugoslavia, a team that was better than we were, and we lost to Iran, a game that could have gone either way, they had a good team at that time, and we lost a game we could have won and that happens in sports. In general, had we gone all out everything perfect, everyone in Europe, we’d likely still would have lost to Germany and Yugoslavia and likely out in the first round...
BV: Who would you say were the top 2 or 3 guys you played with during your MLS career?
TR: I think number one Roberto Donadoni, he was a class act, he was everything you want a pro to be like, constantly working on his game, a good human being, a good teammate, and a good promoter of the league. Then more as a friend, I would say Tony Meola, someone I have always respected… as a person off the field he’s someone I have a good friendship with… Of all the guys I played with at the MetroStars I think the best soccer player I played with was Clint Mathis. He was amazing, he had an amazing right foot and left foot and could take a free kick with either one. Clint was good in the air, good in 1 v 1’s, a great passer, he had all the qualities. I thought Clint was the closest thing to a Christian Pulisic, someone who could have probably been the biggest ever.
BV: Looking back to your national team career, after the 94 World Cup the next major tournament was the Copa America in Uruguay in 1995. There were a lot of stories about that tournament, was it special for you to play in that tournament, being it the country where you are originally from? Also were your teammates asking you questions or was it an afterthought since the team were having some issues with regards to bonuses and contracts with the federation?
TR: It was more of an afterthought than anything else, we were in Paysandú and my parents told me I had been there before, but I didn’t remember. But if you've ever been there, it’s a small town really. One funny story I can remember after we beat Argentina and then we beat Mexico there (Paysandú), we go to the semifinals to Montevideo, and we took the team bus from Paysandú to the airport to travel to Montevideo and get on the plane, when everyone saw the plane no one wanted to get on it. So actually, we forced the bus driver to take us to Montevideo from Paysandú. The plane had to be from the 1920’s and no one wanted to get on it. (Laughs)
BV: Would you say Copa America 95 was the best modern-day performance by the USMNT considering who they beat to get to the semifinals?
TR: I would say that the Confederations Cup victory over Spain is the most important victory by the USMNT, but that Copa America ranks right up there.
BV: It’s rumored, or it has been said that Diego Maradona came down and greeted the USMNT after they defeated Argentina 3-0 in Copa America 95, is that story true? Cobi Jones recently neither confirmed nor denied it.
TR: I never saw him, I am not saying it didn’t happen, but I never saw him, am telling you 100 percent I didn’t see him. He was my idol at the time so I would have spotted him, but again I didn’t see him.
BV: What do you think are the realistic expectations for MLS and the U.S. Soccer program moving forward in the next 5 to 10 years?
TR: I think it’s realistic to think we will qualify for the World Cup, there are a lot of spots and with the schedule the team has the USMNT should have a lot of points. Which puts you in a good spot… I think we will qualify in first or second place… As far as the league I think as a fan I would like the league to have a closer relationship with Liga MX… eventually I’d like to see a league that includes both.