Tab Ramos, then just 15, remembers walking off the field after what he thought would be his last practice with the under-20 United States soccer team.
Ramos was only training with the older players because of his state coach’s national-team ties, and he thought his weeklong visit was over. But the youngster had opened the eyes of the national team coaches.
“I basically just got lucky,” said Ramos, now an assistant coach for the U.S. men’s national team and the head coach of the under-20 team. “It was a complete surprise for me, because I didn’t even think it was a tryout. I thought I was just playing.”
Ramos’ fortunate discovery out of the New Jersey high school ranks in the early 1980s was a sign of a U.S. development system in desperate need of an overhaul.
Ramos played in three World Cups, and the American team has qualified for seven straight. But those teams were put together without a centrally organized scouting system to identify and train the best teen players. In 2006, tired of counting on good fortune to put the players with the most potential in front of national coaches, the U.S. Soccer Federation began to study its development system in earnest.
What it found was “a little bit of a free-for-all,” said Tony Lepore, the U.S. director of scouting. In addition for the need for better scouting, the top players weren’t getting the best training techniques.
“Our elite players were playing way too many matches, and all of them were win-at-all-costs and not about development first,” Lepore said.
After studying youth development programs across the world, the U.S. began to implement its revamped system in 2007 — modeled heavily after soccer powers such as Spain and Germany.
The overhaul was based on having a number of soccer academies across the country, all under the umbrella and watch of U.S. Soccer and tasked with developing and eventually feeding elite players to the national team.
The effort started with 63 clubs, a number that’s since grown to almost 100. More than 6,000 youth players, beginning at the under-13 level, now train with and play against other future national-team hopefuls 10 months out of the year — doing so under uniform rules of play and training.
And they all do so with a clear path to the national team right in front of them, thanks to a network of scouts focused on the progress of talent in the academy system.
“A huge part of the academies is that’s where all the top players migrate to, if they are serious and motivated,” Lepore said. “If they want to reach their potential, they need to be with an academy club.”
Most of the current U.S. squad that’s headed to Brazil for this year’s World Cup predates the current academy system, but the national team is starting to reap the rewards of the revamped model.
DeAndre Yedlin, 20, was named to the current 23-man roster by coach Jurgen Klinsmann two weeks ago, doing so after spending his amateur years as a member of the Seattle Sounders FC Academy team.
The defender earned his fourth cap for the U.S. in a 2-1 win over Turkey last weekend, and he’s likely on his way to becoming a national team stalwart after being named a Major League All-Star last year.
Another future national team hopeful — and academy product — is Columbus Crew midfielder Wil Trapp. The 21-year-old Trapp made the Crew’s academy team as a freshman in high school, later going on to play collegiately for two seasons at Akron and for the under-20 U.S. national team.
Trapp managed to play two years with his high school team in Gahanna, Ohio, unlike some players who live and train on site at different academies. He said the high school and academy environments were far different, though he enjoyed both.
“You were in a completely different situation (at the academy), where there’s national team scouts at every game,” Trapp said. “It’s just a different level.”
In addition to his time with the senior national team, Ramos is also the coach of the under-20 U.S. squad.
Ramos believes the academy system will be a key for U.S. team in the near future.
“When we came up at 17, 18, 19 years old 25-30 years ago, we were basically clueless about the game,” Ramos said. “We were just kids playing soccer. Now we have at 17, 18, 19, now we have soccer players coming up, not kids playing soccer.”