Late last month, about six weeks before the U.S. national team opens World Cup group play against Ghana on June 16, Jurgen Klinsmann made major changes to his coaching staff. Klinsmann hired former German coach and star player Berti Vogts as a special advisor and made U.S. Under-20 head man Tab Ramos his assistant. Longtime assistant and confidant Martin Vasquez was transitioned to an unspecified, different position within U.S. Soccer.
Ramos, who last November was named U.S. Soccer’s youth technical director, has worked with Klinsmann since he became head coach in 2011. SI.com spoke with Ramos this week about his new role and some other topics surrounding the USMNT as it prepares for the World Cup.
SI.com: You were recently added to coach Klinsmann’s staff as an assistant. What are the specifics of your role?
Ramos: I’ve been involved with the senior team since Jurgen took over in August of 2011. So I’ve been to most of their games and most of their camps. So I’m pretty familiar with how the team works. In terms of my role, now I’ve moved up to being – instead of observing and kind of helping from the outside, now I’ve moved up into a role in which I have to contribute a lot more as an assistant coach.
SI.com: Would you have attended the World Cup in your prior position?
Ramos: I was going to, but it was going to be in a scouting role.
SI.com: And now you'll be on the sidelines?
Ramos: Correct. Now I'll be on the sidelines. Instead of mostly just watching the games from the stands and watching all the other teams that we may play, my role now is specifically just only with our team.
SI.com: How involved will you be with tactics and strategy?
Ramos: Obviously the head coach always makes the final decision on everything, but he would always want to surround himself with people who can give him different opinions and different ideas and in the end, obviously he decides.
SI.com: If you were a player on the team, how would you perceive a coaching change this close to the World Cup? Do you think it could be disruptive, in the sense that the players had grown accustomed to the coaching of former assistant Martin Vasquez?
Ramos: As a professional player, you adjust quickly because that’s what you’re used to. You play for one coach at your professional club and then you play for another coach on the national team. Being with the national team – it’s only sporadic. So it’s very easy to adapt to head coaching changes.
At the same time despite being a professional player, you know that whatever coach you play for on your club team, they’re only normally two, three weeks away from possibly not being there because that’s just the nature of the professional game. So you adjust to all those things and as a professional player, I can’t speak for these particular players. But in general terms, professional players adapt very quickly.
SI.com: Could the fact that this coaching change is so close to a major tournament make it harder for the players to adapt?
Ramos: When you’re a professional player and you’re this close to the World Cup, your No. 1 concern is to be on the team. We just played against Mexico, it was very important. And I think the players that had an opportunity to play, I think they wanted to show their best, so that when Jurgen makes the final decision on a team, that they’re part of that team. And then the rest, you just adapt a little bit at a time. I don’t think there’s anything major in that respect.
SI.com: Assess the team’s performance against Mexico last Wednesday. What lessons can you take away from it?
Ramos: I thought it was a very good game. Obviously either team could have won. I thought we were the better team overall and we probably should have won the game. We had the better chances and I thought the difference between us and them in the first half was much greater than the difference they had in the second half. So I think overall, we were the better team. But at the same time, rivalry games sometimes can go either way. I was personally happy that our team responded that well and that they played as hard as they did.
SI.com: Was there anything you were surprised, impressed or discouraged with?
Ramos: There were some impressive performances. ... I thought overall, the way we played with a calmness with the ball out of the back and the way we possessed the ball in the first half – I think that’s very encouraging to know that our players played with such confidence. I would say I would take that out of it. Overall, very happy with the players and with the team.
SI.com: The defense was shaky at times, particularly in the second half. How would you assess its performance?
Ramos: What happens at this level sometimes, is that when you give up a goal you tend to take a step back for a few minutes and Mexico certainly has good players. They took advantage of a period of probably 10, 15 minutes in which we were not at our best, and when we doubted ourselves a little bit. But I think the team responded well in the end and I thought towards the end that we probably were closer to winning the game than they were.
SI.com: With less than two months remaining before the start of the World Cup, in what areas do you feel the team is strongest and weakest?
Ramos: At this point, I think we know overall the level of our pool pretty well. You have to say the strength of the team, besides the fact that we have good players, is that they work well with each other and they’re willing to do whatever it takes for each other on the field to make the team better. They’re very unselfish in looking for the team to do well. So that’s definitely a strength because in a World Cup-type scenario, there’s going to be many countries in which there’s a couple of players that are looking out for ‘What can I do for me’-type thing.
And I think our players are good in that respect – they’re looking out for the best of the team. That’s definitely a strength for us. In terms of weaknesses, I think a weakness that every other country is going to have, which is: do you have enough time to prepare? Did you prepare well? Are we doing all the right things to get us to the game on the 13th or on the 12th in top form? So that would be our concern – that we’re hoping that we can prepare the team. Other than that, we’re ready to go.
SI.com: Is there any position or tactical aspect of the team you can point to that you think is stronger or weaker than others?
Ramos: Specifically, no, because we really haven’t had our full team together for a while now. So we’ll have to wait and see what the form of the players is like in about five, six weeks from now, when we get together to be together the rest of the way. I think it still remains to be seen. Players get hot and cold at different times, and we’re hoping that most of our players are hot by that time.
SI.com: Is there any one area of the team that you think you and Jurgen need to address before the World Cup?
Ramos: Not any one area in particular. I think at this point, like I said, we have to re-evaluate about five weeks from now and see where everybody is. And maybe at that point, it would be a good time to answer that question. But so many things can happen between now and five weeks from now, in terms of injuries, in terms of who’s not going to be there that we’re really counting on. So the team can change so much in five weeks when you have professionals involved, that we at this point just have to wait and see.
SI.com: How does pairing Michael Bradley with Kyle Beckerman in the midfield – as opposed to Bradley and Jermaine Jones – change the team’s attacking and defensive tactics? Can you compare the two pairings?
Ramos: It’s difficult to compare, because Jermaine Jones and Kyle Beckerman are different players. But this is the team that we had available this time. Obviously Jermaine was with his team in Europe because it was not FIFA days. So I think we’ll bring the team together and at that point Jurgen will have to decide what the best pairing is going to be. We’re certainly happy with what Kyle and Michael Bradley did together. I thought they did a pretty good job.
SI.com: Does pairing Beckerman and Bradley change the way the team plays in any way? Could you discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the Bradley-Beckerman and Bradley-Jones midfield pairings?
Ramos: I would say no because we’ve known that Kyle Beckerman is a very good player and we’ve known also that Michael Bradley is a great player. The thing is, that’s why I keep saying that, in the end we have to decide five, six weeks from now because it depends on form. ... Depending on who’s in the best form – that’s when you have to decide what the best pairing is going to be and it’s also going to have to be according to the opponent that we play. So there are a lot of things to consider.
SI.com: At this point, though, you don’t think switching the central midfield pairing changes the team’s tactics at all?
Ramos: Well I think to even talk about it now doesn’t really make any sense. We’re still five weeks from even getting together – five or six weeks. So at that time, we’ll assess where everybody is, and at that point, take it from there. Decide how we’re going to compete for the following month. We still have Azerbaijan to play, we still have Nigeria to play. We have enough games now with the full team in to be able to decide what the pairing is going to be.
SI.com: Discuss the positives and benefits of the team using two forwards in a standard 4-4-2 formation, rather than the 4-2-3-1 it has used in the past?
Ramos: For the most part, I think the 4-4-2 worked well the other day against Mexico’s 3-5-1 alignment. I think that’s something that I think we benefited [from], because when you go with their 3-5-1 against a 4-4-2, it gives our wide players a better opportunity to play two against one wide. So I thought that was a good scenario for us. It’s just something that was tried and something that we know we can do and you have to decide as you get closer to games which to use against which team.
SI.com: Does the fact that the 4-4-2 worked well against Mexico give you confidence that it’s a formation you can use in the World Cup?
Ramos: Correct. I think sometimes people, whether it’s the media or whatever else – people would tend to think, ‘Oh, they played so well in a 4-4-2 against Mexico. I think this is the way.’ The fact is soccer, all the time, it depends. It depends on a lot of different factors, and not just on form of your players. But it depends on the other team and how we predict they will set up and the strengths and weaknesses that they have and the form that their players have at certain positions and which matchup is going to be best for us. So there’s so many things to consider that for anyone to say, ‘Oh, we found the 4-4-2 and this is our way.’ I think we just have to wait and see. I think it’s certainly something we could use, that I think we did well, but I think we have to wait and see.
SI.com: As youth technical director, you’ve spent a lot of time observing and coaching some of the young players who one day hope to earn a spot on the senior squad. Do you believe the likes of Julian Green, Luis Gil and DeAndre Yedlin are ready to contribute to the senior team right now? Or do you view them more as long-term projects?
Ramos: I think both. I think they can contribute now and they certainly are long-term projects and hopefully, long-term national team players.
SI.com: Are they still being kept in consideration for the final roster?
Ramos: Again, Jurgen makes all the decisions on the roster. But I think they’re all good players and were they not being considered, they wouldn’t have gotten a call for the last game. It’s not like we have time to play around. Any player that has been in any camp over the last six months is certainly being considered.
SI.com: Evaluate Green’s debut with the senior team. What are some of your thoughts on what he did well and what he could do better?
Ramos: I thought he did very well. He’s 18 years old. He got thrown into the biggest rivalry game in CONCACAF and, yes, it was a friendly game, but U.S.-Mexico games rarely have the friendly atmosphere. He handled that really well. I thought, maybe at the beginning, he was a little hesitant on the ball a couple of times, but then he created a chance that could have been a penalty or at the very least a very dangerous free kick for us that could have won the game that wasn’t called. Players like that, sometimes, you wait for them to make one or two plays that win the game, and I thought he went in the game and he actually made one play that could have won the game for us and I think that’s huge for a young player.
SI.com: In all your years playing in and following U.S. soccer, do you remember the team being slotted into a tougher World Cup group than this? Ramos: No I don’t, actually. I had a similar experience last year at the U-20 World Cup. But this is very tough. This is very tough. At the same time I think we’ve come a long way with U.S. Soccer, so I think that all three teams that are playing us are conscious that in order to beat us, they have to play their best game.