The great American U20 escapade in South Korea is just about on us. Those tortuous, bleary-eyed early morning matches – Stateside, at least – are coming around the bend next week with the opener against Ecuador.
The U.S. of course skipped through U20 CONCACAF Championship as champions for the first time in history, running down Honduras in a penalty shootout in the finale in Costa Rica in March. That was the backdrop for Tuesday’s dramatic U.S. U20 World Cup roster reveal, which was its own little soccer soap opera in miniature. There were jilted players left at the altar, one player who’d had one camp this entire cycle, an entire contingent of Americans at a certain club in Germany who were flatly denied permission to leave, and a whole host of other salient talking points.
Hours after the roster unveil, U20 coach Tab Ramos, who guided the team to the quarters of the 2015 U20 World Cup, chatted with a gaggle of reporters via telecon. Here’s what he had to say, in full. Note that I’ve paraphrased some of the questions from the reporter pool for the sake of brevity.
“We’re excited about being able to provide another great opportunity for our players. Obviously attending and playing in a World Cup against the best players at their age in the world is a great experience. And then we’re very proud that for the first time we get to travel to the 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 I think although we remain underdogs we go over there as champions, and I hope that we can really take that as a new experience as a good one and that this becomes more of 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, and regardless of whether we can say, is someone missing or 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.”
How much opposition did you run into from European clubs for the release of some players? And what is the health status of Cameron Carter-Vickers?
“To be fair, it’s always difficult to get players’ releases. But I think that we’ve developed some very good relationships with the European clubs as well as we have with MLS clubs. I think this time more than any other time we have players in MLS who are actually playing for the first team and getting a lot of time. I have to say that first of all MLS has been great to us, and our relationship between U.S. Soccer and MLS continues to grow. They’ve done a good job in recognizing that this is a good opportunity for their players, so I thank them.
“In terms of the European clubs, we didn’t get any cooperation from Schalke, at all, at any time for their players. And we had very little cooperation from Fiorentina about Josh Perez. Other than that, we’ve gotten all the cooperation that we needed. There have been some concessions on our side and some on theirs and we worked together pretty well.
“In terms of Cameron’s injury, at this point Cameron’s been running. He’s been working mostly on fitness so far, and we are hoping that in the next 3-4 days he’s going to continue to make progress and be available to us possibly for early next week.”
Can you speak to the players who weren’t in qualifying you brought up, as well as Josh Sargent (who was recently with the U17 MNT)?
“The guys who were not in qualifying who we have in the group here, one is obviously the goalkeeper Brady Scott, he’s a ’99 so he’s on our U18 national team, he’s at the moment our No. 1 keeper there. We’ve tried to do the best we can over the last couple cycles to bring up a different goalkeeper for different experiences for what would potentially be our next No. 1 goalkeeper for our U20 group. Then we have Derrick Jones, obviously this is a player from the Philadelphia Union that we wanted to include for qualifying but paperwork with FIFA took a little bit longer and we couldn’t include him until now, but he’s played with us before.
“We have Lagos Kunga, who’s a younger player that’s coming through for Atlanta United who has a lot of energy, has speed, can take players on, is an honest worker. He just has all the tools to I think make a lot of progress over the next one or two years. I think he can help us here, obviously that’s why he’s on the team. Obviously everyone knows Gedion Zelalem. Gedion was at the last (U20) World Cup, and we welcome him back, he played a couple games for us in October.
“And then Josh Sargent. (U17 MNT coach) John Hackworth and I have been discussing Josh for the last six months and trying to provide better and more competitive opportunities for him from the national team standpoint. So we discussed even the possibility of him going to qualifying for the U20s. At the time we thought we wanted to leave the U17 team alone and have him go with the U17s and help them qualify for the World Cup there and he did a great job with that. So now we moved him up, but he’s already been with us at a January camp this year, so we know Josh fairly well. In the end, whether he plays at the U17 World Cup after this or not, I think the possibility will be there, but it’s sort of the same scenario with Christian (Pulisic), obviously at a different level. Some players sometimes outgrow an age group, and if they have to move on we have to remember here the youth national teams are here to provide a good experience internationally, and I think Josh will get that with us hopefully and let’s see what the future brings.”
What have you seen from Derrick Jones this year from the Union, what’s Carter-Vickers’ injury status and what do you expect from Auston Trusty?
“Cameron was with us last month, so he got injured with us playing in the friendlies we had in England, so he’s been with us recently. He’s close to coming back. In terms of Trusty, Auston knows exactly what situation he’s in here. We have two center backs that we have called in, one is Cameron and the other is Justen Glad, who have been injured. So there’s a possibility one of them won’t make it to the World Cup. And if they don’t, we have full confidence that Auston can do a great job. We’ve been very fortunate in that we have quite a few center backs that we feel comfortable putting on the field any time, and Auston is certainly one of those.
“As far as Derrick Jones is concerned, I watched Derrick Jones play in the USL (with Bethlehem Steel) last year the whole season pretty much, not every game but most games. And Derrick did really well. This is why we called him to the national team back in October. The rest has really been about paperwork. Derrick has been with us all of January in our full preseason camp that we did, and we just couldn’t get the paperwork in time for qualifying. But 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 that he’s done a great job and we expected that because he’s a good player.”
Do you think any of these players could put themselves in position to be considered for the senior team World Cup roster by 2018?
“I certainly hope so, yeah. Why not? But I wouldn’t like 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 want to have a good World Cup and have good international games then go back to their clubs and go well, then I’m sure (USMNT coach) Bruce (Arena) has his door open to every player who’s capable of making a difference for the first team.”
How will this team play differently than the group we saw in qualifying with the makeup of the roster, and have you settled on where you see Erik Palmer-Brown playing?
“Those are very good questions and ones that are not 100 percent resolved for us only because of all the injuries that we have. At this point the idea is to have Erik Palmer-Brown play at the center back position. He is a center back. I think in CONCACAF, we sort of could get away with him playing the No. 6 because I think he is good enough to play that position. And I do believe he’s good enough to play that position down the road. Whether we’re going to need that from him in this particular tournament I’m not sure, but I certainly wouldn’t hesitate to put him there. But at this point the idea is to have him play center back.
“The team is not a whole lot different. We obviously added Gedion in the center of the field. That’ll help us. He’s a great possession player. We definitely 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 months down the line here, we have Brooks Lennon with a lot more experience than he had two months ago, he’s been playing MLS games, 90 minutes almost every game, so we expect a lot more from him. (Emmanuel) Sabbi has been training a lot. He’s been in a more than difficult situation with Las Palmas, so he was not really fit in qualifying, so we’ll get the best of him in this tournament.
“I think Luca de la Torre will do a great job and Sebastian Saucedo will do that as well. He’s played a lot for RSL, getting that experience in the first division. And then obviously can’t forget about Josh Sargent, and Josh can make an impact on the team. Do I expect more of us? I absolutely expect more. We led the tournament in shots on goal at CONCACAF, I think we had something like 81 shots and the second team had I think 60, and yet we didn’t even lead the tournament in scoring. We were not great up front in CONCACAF and we have to be better at the World Cup because we won’t get as many chances.”
This seemed like a year of struggle for Gedion Zelalem. What’s your assessment of his form and fit in this team at the moment?
“We’re going to rely on him a lot. At this point I’d have to say that he’s beyond the last World Cup (in 2015), although he was theoretically one of our big names, I think now he’s on the older side of the age group and he needs to be one of our leaders. We expect that from him, and so he has to be one of the ones 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. He looks very good. We haven’t played a game yet because the team is coming in this afternoon, but so far Gedion has looked very good and I’m excited about that.”
How has Tyler Adams improved, and what are your expectations of him in Korea?
“It’s hard to say exactly what my expectations are because Tyler just keeps getting better and better. You almost want to set the bar for him so high that he can’t reach it. It’s difficult to do with such a young player because he’s one of the younger players here. Tyler’s physical ability to cover ground and mental strength are really amazing for a young player. Certainly have not had – never want to put players behind him – but he’s one of a kind. Certainly a very aggressive young player, and one that I think we’re hoping has a tremendous impact on the team.
“He’s a young player. I think what has been surprising from my end is that he’s stepped into a team, in the middle of a team to play central midfielder role with the Red Bulls, and I know the Red Bulls probably better than any other team in the league because I’ve watched them the most, and he has done a tremendous job just physically being able to play with 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 of these players have a lot to improving to do. Tyler, he obviously needs to hold onto the ball better, needs to distribute better; there’s a number of things he needs to improve on. But that all comes with time and comes with adjusting to the speed of the game.”
Five players on the roster have Real Salt Lake ties. What are RSL doing that makes their players such solid contributors?
“I really don’t know their formula, I just like good players. I pick them and they happen to be from there, and that’s a great thing. I think that they were one of the first, if not the first, clubs to have a residency program down in Arizona. I think that’s what’s helped them the most and that’s what’s put them ahead of the curve. They’ve been by far the team I think have produced the most in this particular cycle for the national team. You think of all five players they have, any player could be a starter on this team, and I think that’s a lot to say of one club.”
Villarreal’s Mukwelle Akale was one of the more interesting attacking names this cycle. Was he just not ready, or was Villarreal reluctant to release him?
“Mukwelle was one of those cases where I’m sitting here and I’m thinking, ‘how did I not pick Mukwelle?’ It happens every cycle. There’s a couple players every cycle where you look back and you just go, wow, I just couldn’t fit him in to what we want to do this time. Mukwelle could be here. He was in pretty good form last month, but unfortunately there are only so many players we can pick. He certainly was one that’s in good form and could’ve helped us.”
Are you surprised that Zelalem’s career hasn’t kicked off? And did it surprise you that Schalke and Fiorentina weren’t as helpful in releasing players?
“Gedion, coming in I was a little bit concerned with his form and what that would look like. But after having seen him for the last 3-4 days in practice, I’m convinced that he’s ready to do a great job for us. No concern there. I would have hoped that his career at this point would be a little more advanced. Two years ago he was at Arsenal and he got some opportunities with the first team. Here we are two years later and we’re kind of looking at the same sort of scenario.
“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’ve been a more difficult one. But (he was) certainly a player that we had pre-selected to come to the U20 World Cup, except we haven’t had an opportunity to have Josh with us in over a year now. He hasn’t been released. That’s really difficult, to follow a player that’s not playing for the first team who’s playing as a U19 and at the same time we don’t get to see him with us. It would’ve been a tough pick for us and one we would’ve considered all the way until the end.
“As far as Schalke, both Weston McKennie and Nick Taitague are guys we would have liked to consider. Weston has been doing very well, and Nick we like a lot because he’s one of those one-of-a-kind type wingers who can take people on and break people down. I like both a lot, but we weren’t really given options with Schalke. Schalke was pretty straightforward in terms of, our U19s are more important than your national team, and so they’re going to stay here until we’re done playing. And 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 isn’t that important at the youth level. You have to deal with that.”
Looking at the three guys from the last U20 World Cup in Gedion Zelalem, Erik Palmer-Brown and Cameron Carter-Vickers, how have they grown? And what has Eryk Williamson brought from the college level?
“Those three guys have made, at least when it comes to one by one, take Cameron Carter-Vickers. He was playing for the Tottenham U23s, sometimes with their U19s. He was captain with their U23s so he was starting to make progress. Obviously this time around he’s been on Tottenham’s first team, and obviously Tottenham is probably one of the top 10 teams in the world today, so that’s a great place to be. Unfortunately for him, because of that he hasn’t been able to play as many games as he played the year before. So he’s been playing anywhere between 45-50 games per year to only playing eight. And that’s difficult for a young player, so we’ve had to manage that a little bit. That’s why we’ve called him to a couple camps to see if we could provide a couple opportunities.
“Tottenham has been great with us. They really feel like the psychological part of the game is important. Cameron is happy when he comes to us, and he needs that. As far as Erik Palmer-Brown, Erik Palmer-Brown is a completely different player now than he was two years ago. He’s really matured. Unfortunately he was injured in the final of CONCACAF, so he went back to Kansas City not ready to compete for a first team spot as much as we would’ve liked. But I think certainly one of the best talents we have moving forward, not only as a center back but also as a No. 6 depending on what type of setup 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.
“And Gedion, he’s made progress as well. 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 than he had in the last World Cup, although the last World Cup I thought he was excellent for us.
“As far as Eryk Williamson, Eryk just keeps surprising me every day I see him. I wondered how he’s still in college. I went to watch a couple college games, and to be fair he didn’t stand out that much in college. I went to watch a couple of Maryland games. I think one specific game I went to against Rutgers, I think he got subbed in and out of the game I think four or five times. It’s difficult for the type of game we play internationally, it’s difficult to prepare yourself 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 some of the softest feet I’ve seen with the national team in the last seven or eight years. That’s something I value a lot. At the same time, he has great physical abilities. Eryk is doing great for us and potentially he could be a starter starting next week as well.”
Your team looked comfortable defending and counter-attacking at speed in CONCACAF. Do you think this team plays better sitting back, and how does that fit into the more high-minded ideals often espoused by U.S. Soccer?
“Not at all actually, we’re 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 pull back a little bit, but it’s not something that we’re doing.
“As a matter of fact, when we meet with all the youth national team coaches, and we’ve had quite a few of these, we’ll talk about having a proactive type style in which we want to come after people. If you watch our U17s, it’s not different. They press the ball, they tried to have the ball the whole time in the tournament, they’re creating opportunities. Maybe in the second half against Mexico, Mexico had a little bit more of the ball, and that’s going to happen at times. But it’s not because it’s something that we do, but it could be something that happens in the game.
“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 and want to suffer for each other. They want to be in the battles. So I don’t think we have a culture of players who just want to sit back and wait and counter. I just don’t think that’s who we are. We’re coming after people and sometimes we’re going to win and sometimes we’re going to lose.”
What was it about Lagos Kunga that won him a spot on the team?
“Lagos did such a great job. He only came to one camp but he impressed us so much at the camp. He can do it all. He can go forward really well with speed. He has a good feel for the game, so he understands the game. He loves this. You can tell he can’t wait to get out to the field every day, and he makes plays. He takes people on down the side. He pulls balls in the box. He’ll come back and defend if he needs to. He can do it all.
“The risk for us is that he may be a little bit green in terms of national team experience, but I like the upside of what he has to offer. I’m hoping that this international experience will make him something even better for when he goes back to play for Atlanta.”
How does the distance to South Korea and the opener against a tough Ecuadorian team impact how you prepare?
“It’s definitely a difficult challenge. We’ve already discussed with the players who are here, we talked about that this tournament is different than the CONCACAF tournament. I always feel that the CONCACAF tournament is long, and we can plan that way and I think we have the talent to be able to plan for a long tournament. The World Cup, any team can beat you, and certainly by getting the runner-up team from South America as the first team you play, we already start with a final.
“We cannot afford in this tournament to gradually get better. Twelve days from now we play the first final. Ecuador have a very potent attack. They can counter very well. Our pressure, if it gets broken at different times it could create some difficult opportunities for us, just like it did when they beat Argentina 3-0, when they tied Brazil 3-3. They’re extremely dangerous up front. But I think this will be a great experience for us. It’s a game we have to come out and we feel we have to win.”