As Tab Ramos prepares to lead the United States into the CONCACAF U-20 Championship, which acts as the qualifying mechanism for the U-20 World Cup from the region, he knows that his side is playing catchup.
In the last U-20 World Cup, the United States had one representative: referee Mark Geiger. Mexico earned bronze. Additionally, El Tri is the reigning U-17 World Cup and Olympic champion.
"I can definitely say that Mexico has done a great job in the last few years and they've gotten some great results," Ramos told Goal.com in Spanish. "We're working towards that, to get to that level. I can say that we're never afraid to face Mexico. Sometimes we give a better showing, other times we don't, but it's never going to cost us on a mental level to face them."
[Read Ramos' interview with Goal.com en Español: Part 1 Part 2]
The Yanks are in a group with Haiti and Costa Rica. The top two teams advance to the quarterfinals and the four semifinalists qualify for the World Cup. Matches take place from Feb. 18 through March 3 in Puebla, Mexico.
Ramos has coached the American side since 2011, when Jurgen Klinsmann chose the former U.S. international to replace Thomas Rongen. In the short term, Ramos will attempt to avoid the failure of the U-23 Olympic team, which capitulated before reaching London. In the medium to long term, the 46-year-old will attempt to develop players capable of transitioning the United States into the more technical, proactive style preached by Klinsmann.
"This national team has a lot of players with Latino blood in them, but it has nothing to do with the fact that I have Latino blood," Ramos, who was born in Uruguay and played in Spain and Mexico as a midfielder, said. "Simply put, I want players with a certain technique, who think on the ball and sacrifice themselves for the good of the team. We'll see soon enough if what we want comes true and if there's a change or not in the team's style. We're not Mexico, but we've grown a lot since 1990."
His 20-man roster features three players based in Mexico, three in Germany, six from MLS and one in England. The rest come from the U.S. amateur ranks: six from college and a lone representative of the USSF Development Academy.
Had Ramos gotten his way, the squad would have one extra player from Liga MX.
"At the beginning of this process we wanted two players from Chivas: [Juan Pablo] Ocegueda and Julio Morales. I spoke to them and they were interested, but then the [Mexican] Federation got involved and I don't know what the specifics were, but we couldn't bring [Morales] in," Ramos said.
"We know Chivas doesn't allow its players to play for the United States. When Chivas acquired Ocegueda on loan they knew they were bringing in a player committed to the United States, because Juan Pablo has been with us for two years now. He's always shown a conscious interest and we value that a lot."
Benji Joya and Daniel Cuevas from Santos Laguna round out the Mexico-based trio.
Of the group, midfielder Luis Gil has the most experience, with over 50 appearances for Real Salt Lake. He signed with MLS as a 16-year-old and has eased gradually into increased action under the tutelage of Jason Kreis. However, with MLS clubs only now building youth academies and a competent reserve league, plenty of other talented youth players fall through the cracks and over the border. Joya, for instance, turned down CSU Bakersfield to sign with Santos Laguna in 2011.
Liga MX clubs provide superior developmental programs and have begun scouting extensively in the United States for overlooked Hispanic players.
"It's hard, because it is very attractive for many of them to play in Mexico and that weighs us down,” Ramos said. “What I can do is tell them up front what their chances are to play in the U-20 team for the United States, and trust in their capabilities. From there on out, it's their decision for what they think is best for their future. We should really think about how 18- and 19-year-old boys can and will change their minds easily to a certain degree."
The Mexican border isn't the only one these teenagers straddle. Klinsmann has injected the senior U.S. roster with players from Germany fathered by American servicemen. Jerome Kiesewetter, the projected starting striker for this U.S. U-20 outfit, was born in Berlin, Germany.
Increased globalization has blurred the lines of national eligibility.
"Mexico has two or three guys playing for them that were born in the USA who could be with us,” Ramos said. “But today, in the world and in general, any national team you look at at any level can have those types of cases. This is a global issue now."
John Rojas and Eric Gomez contributed additional reporting.
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