CARSON, Calif. – DeAndre Yedlin's hair looks like a muskrat died on his head. The flop of dyed-blond frizz earned him the nickname Rufio. He's impossible to miss.
Yet Tab Ramos overlooked the Seattle Sounders right back when selecting the U.S. roster for the 2013 CONCACAF U-20 Championship.
It wasn't for lack of scouting.
"He came to one of our camps – did not do well. I think he would agree with that," Ramos said. "At that point he was just another college player who didn't do well. We had 36 [total] in the first camp."
Then with Akron, Yedlin's college status complicated issues. Ramos faced a restraint unique to the U-20 age group and perhaps to the United States. For the tournament, which ended on March 3, Ramos had to select his college crops by "late November, early December" to give them ample warning to take a semester off.
"This age group is difficult," Ramos said. "Some of the college guys that we have on here, I have to commit to them late November. I have to decide: are they going to be on my qualifying team in February, when I actually don't know what their level is going to be like in February."
Ramos went with two collegiate right backs: Boyd Okwuonu (North Carolina) and Eric Miller (Creighton University). He knew he'd picked the wrong guys as early as January.
By then, LA Galaxy Homegrown player Oscar Sorto had risen to the top of Ramos' depth chart thanks to his performances in a January camp.
"Had I had to choose only from that camp, [Sorto] would have been in the qualifying team," Ramos said. "I decided on a couple college guys in November that I think were not at the [same] level as Oscar at the end of January, but at that point I couldn't travel with three right backs to qualifying."
The 20-man roster faced five games over two weeks at the end of February and beginning of March with World Cup qualification on the line. Luxury items like surplus fullbacks don't enter the discussion.
Okwuonu started the first game, against Haiti, and acquitted himself poorly. Miller began the second match, versus Costa Rica, but came out injured at half time. He didn't play the rest of the tournament. Okwuonu returned against Canada in the knockout round. For the semi and final, Tab Ramos pulled playmaker Dillon Serna – all 5-foot-7, 140 pounds of him – into a fullback position and benched Okwuonu.
"You always want to have 11 that you count on that are your best guys, but unfortunately in this age group that's nearly impossible," Ramos said. "It was what it was and we did the best that we could, and fortunately we did a good job with what we had."
The United States finished second, losing to Mexico in the final, qualifying for the U-20 World Cup by virtue of advancing to the semifinal round.
As of April, Sorto and Yedlin have comfortably surpassed Okwuonu and Miller in the race for tickets to the World Cup in Turkey. Ramos called Sorto "one of our best players." Yedlin had already worked his way back onto the depth chart with his collegiate play. Cracking Seattle's starting lineup as a rookie made Ramos' job straightforward. "That's an easy call for us," he said.
Both Sorto and Yedlin made the roster for a training camp this week at the Home Depot Center. Okwuonu and Miller did not.
The U.S. U-20 staff face the same hullabaloo when selecting a roster for the World Cup in June.
Despite his miscalculations at right back in the CONCACAF Championship, Ramos says predicting growth isn't the main predicament. Calculating for injuries and club responsibilities makes for soothsaying, not calculus. "There's nothing we can do about that," he said.
However, if a club needs one of his teenagers – like the injury-depleted Colorado Rapids preventing Shane O'Neill from joining the current training camp in California because the rookie is starting in MLS – Ramos isn't ruffled. "I'm fine with whatever we get," he said. And besides, player development is part of the goal. Results at the full national team level, under Jürgen Klinsmann, take priority.
"Don't forget that this age group is also about developing players for our senior team," Ramos said. "Obviously we needed to qualify; obviously we need to get results. But at the same time, if we're delivering players into professional first teams and hopefully into Jürgen's team, that's the whole point of what we're doing."
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