NEW YORK - Tab Ramos has been a fixture of American soccer for nearly three decades now. He earned a place on the U.S. men’s national team’s Mount Rushmore as a player in the 90s, then returned to serving the program in 2011 by becoming the under-20 squad’s head coach.
Ramos has seen just about all there’s been to see in soccer’s growth in this country. And as he prepares to take the under-20 team to the World Cup later this month, he believes this year’s squad might be something special.
"This group sometimes just goes, ‘We got this, coach,’ " Ramos said after announcing the 21-player squad for the tournament. “I really like that. When I see us walking on the field and I see guys like Alex Mendez and Mark McKenzie and Paxton [Pomykal] and those kinds of guys who are just so confident when they walk on the field, it gives you a good feeling as a coach that everything is going to be okay.”
McKenzie, a Union centerback who developed in the team’s academy, exemplifies that confidence.
“Ultimately, you want to go in there and you want to win it: to come home with a trophy, to win the first [men’s] World Cup in U.S. history,” said McKenzie, who grew up in Bear, Del. “It’s not the senior World Cup, it’s the next step down, but that’s our objective. ... To see the amount of talent we have in this U-20 cycle, it’s incredible.”
That talent includes Mendez, a Los Angeles native at German club Freiburg; and Pomykal, who has been given the keys to FC Dallas’ midfield this season. Both players are the kind of exciting, creative playmakers that American soccer struggled to produce for so long.
Ramos was one of those players. He is thrilled by the growth of talent and skill in the U.S. player pool.
“Back when I played, I used to get a lot of credit for being the skillful guy who can have the ball and kind of pass the ball around to other guys," Ramos said. “We’re in a completely different world than when I played. There’s literally thousands of players who can keep possession. We didn’t have that 25 years ago.”
He hopes his team will show that off at the World Cup. It comes with the obvious caveat of having to adapt to opponents’ styles, but Ramos is optimistic.
“We want to have the ball,” Ramos said. “Our players want to attack, our players want to be aggressive, and if it happens that we lose that way, we lose that way. But we’re losing that way and going after it."
Union left back Matt Real, a stalwart of the current under-20 team along with McKenzie, believes the potential is there to make a statement.
“I definitely have full confidence that whatever group heads out there is fully capable of doing what we strive to do, which is to win the whole thing,” said Real, a Drexel Hill native. “Tab has even told us with all the groups he’s ever worked with in the past, he doesn’t think he’s ever seen a cycle this deep and this talented. It definitely gave us a lot of confidence when we heard that coming from him.”
This U.S. team’s biggest attacking weapon is Tim Weah, a forward/winger for Paris Saint-Germain who has been on loan at Scottish club Celtic since January. At PSG, Weah has played with global superstars like Neymar, Kylian Mbappé and Edinson Cavani. That is an exceptional soccer education.
“He has that killer instinct," Ramos said of Weah. “He’s a winner, and he’s constantly looking to hurt you and win the game.”
Weah has also played eight times for the senior U.S. national team so far, scoring his first senior-level goal at Talen Energy Stadium last May. He could have been chosen for this summer’s Gold Cup instead. Ramos said Weah wanted to play at the under-20 World Cup, though, and the U.S. coaching staff was on board.
“Tim has shown real interest in participating, because he wants to have this type of competition under his belt,” Ramos said. "It means a lot to me that he trusts the program to come back to it, and be willing to participate. And at the same time, I think it means a lot to the other guys.”
Add all of that up - plus the senior national team’s struggles, too - and it’s easy to see why there’s more interest from fans in an under-20 World Cup than ever.
Ramos is careful to not add fuel to the hype.
“Most of the public has not seen our team play and don’t really know our players well. They just sort of know what they hear, and they definitely don’t know the other teams,” he said. “So it’s really hard to say, ‘Okay, this is the year we’re going to win.’ "
Don’t confuse that with a lack of confidence in his team, though. Ramos has plenty of it.
“Our goal doesn’t change: I want to go there and win every game, then we see where we fall,” he said. “Hopefully we can get [the players] together and we can get great results, and hopefully we can win the whole thing.”
And he is happy to have his team in the spotlight.