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How the USMNT found and kept Dest

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With the stroke of a pen on Gregg Berhalter’s lineup card and the referee’s whistle to finish the game, a 4-1 U.S. Men’s National Team victory over Canada, Sergino Dest officially tied his future to the USMNT. It was arguably the final step in a recruitment that began more than three years ago thanks to a message from Amsterdam, Netherlands to Dave van der Bergh.

Since retiring as a player, the former New York Red Bulls and FC Dallas winger has spent his time coaching youth teams within U.S. Soccer, and in this instance, he was working with then U.S. Under-17 head coach John Hackworth. Hackworth was unavailable for comment on this story.

Dest first came on van der Bergh’s radar from a contact at Ajax, where van der Bergh came through the youth academy, and it led to Dest’s first call-ups to the U.S. U-17s in 2016.

“I was tipped off by people at Ajax that there was a player with a dual nationality, and considering that we had been looking at dual nationalities, that I should take a look at him,” van der Bergh said in an e-mail. “I found out about him through the club itself, actually.

“The first time I saw him, I asked for video footage from Ajax, which they gave to me and that was great. Then I asked a really good friend of mine to take a look at him for us. He is somebody I really trust as far as scouting goes, and he said the same things that I thought I had seen. That’s when I decided to tell John Hackworth about him.”

Hackworth and co. brought Dest along slowly, getting him incorporated in the group. He was a reserve in the 2016 Nike International Friendlies as a 15-year-old, with Sporting KC defender Jaylin Lindsey starting ahead of him at the time.

But while the U.S. Soccer Federation was at turmoil at the top – this was just months after Jurgen Klinsmann was fired and replaced by Bruce Arena after his season with the LA Galaxy wrapped up – Dest was making a very good first impression to the coaches.

“I thought that it was unusual,” former U.S. Under-20 Men’s National Team coach Tab Ramos recalled in a phone interview. “Normally, our defenders on youth national teams, 1-on-1 they usually have a lot to learn. I felt that Sergino was one of those defenders that never got beat 1-on-1, and that caught my attention.”

Dest wasn’t part of the U.S. U-17s run to the CONCACAF Under-17 final in 2017, but he earned a spot on the 2017 FIFA Under-17 World Cup roster, and it’s where he became a breakout star for American soccer fans. His impact  play from left back or right back added a new element to the U.S. attack and he held his own defensively.

Since then, Dest has continued to progress for club and country at a rapid rate. He helped lead the U.S. U-20s to the CONCACAF U-20 Championship and a run to the quarterfinals at the 2019 FIFA U-20 World Cup, and for Ajax he went from the U-19s in 2017 to Jong Ajax a year later and now a sure-fire starter at right back for the first team in 2019.

“He just became more and more mature,” Ramos said of Dest’s progression as a player in a short span. “He became more of an impact player on the attacking side of the field, and in general I give the players the freedom to express themselves within the context of the way we want to play. I think he was happy with the way we played and it allowed him to express himself, so it worked really well.”

His success in the Ajax first team of course got the attention of the Dutch National Team, who suddenly had an interest in Dest. In the youth stages, it made more sense for Dest to play with the U.S. because he’d have a better opportunity to play at a youth World Cup. The Netherlands hasn’t made the World Cup at U-20 or U-17 level since they hosted the U-20 World Cup in 2005, a shocking statistic considering all the stars they’ve produced over the years.

Suddenly, Dest was being faced with the prospect of competing for playing time on a team that made the final four less than a decade ago and looks to be surging back to prominence, or staying with the only national team program he’d known. The U.S. stepped up its recruitment in September when Gregg Berhalter called Dest in for a pair of matches, first against Mexico and then against Uruguay, where the teenager started both matches. At the same time, his former coach Ramos was keeping in touch with Dest once he decided in October to take more time to make his decision between the U.S. and the Netherlands.

“I continue to be in contact with Serg like I do with many of the players,” Ramos said. “Basically, my recommendation to him was to go with his heart. I feel like, of course you can listen to your agent and you can listen to people in the press, and you can always choose what’s more convenient to you, for your career. But I think the most important thing when playing for a country is to choose where your heart is. That’s basically what I told him.”

Dest made his decision to stay with the U.S. on October 28, and it was a big win for a USMNT program that had lost promising midfielder Jonathan Gonzalez in a similar situation to Mexico. Even bigger, Ramos noted, was that Dest wasn’t born and raised in the U.S., and his main connection with his nation was through the national team itself.

“I’m very proud of that, because it means he has a trust in our program and he’s confident that he’s going to get the most out of his opportunities that he gets here with our program,” Ramos said. “I think it goes to show the great job Hackworth did with him and how happy he was to be with us in the U-20s that he feels like this is his home.

“You have to remember this a kid who never lived in the U.S., he grew up in Holland, and that the closest thing for being home for him has been our youth national teams. I think he felt comfortable. He’s been comfortable and he felt like we took care of him, and he’s been happy. That’s just my feeling.”

Houston Dynamo hires U.S. U-20 coach Tab Ramos

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The Houston Dynamo has found its new coach in longtime U.S. U-20 boss and MLS veteran Tab Ramos.

Ramos, 53, takes over a Dynamo team which missed the playoffs due largely to its moribund 2-15 record away from home.

[ MORE: El Trafico recap | Disrespectful Zlatan ]

He led the U-20s to the 2013 World Cup, the only time his men failed to advance past the group stage. The U.S. U-20s went to the quarterfinals in 2015, 2017, and 2019, and Ramos helped develop talents like Tyler Adams, Zack Steffen, Josh Sargent, and Sergino Dest.

From HoustonDynamo.com:

“I’m excited to join the Houston Dynamo organization and I’m looking forward to the challenge of leading this group of players,” Ramos said. “This is a club that has winning in its DNA, a club with a clear vision for the future centered around development and a team-first mentality, and Houston is a city that has tremendous untapped potential as a soccer market, both on and off the field. This is a fantastic opportunity, and I can’t wait to get started.”

The Uruguay-born midfielder earned 81 caps for the USMNT on the heels of a career at North Carolina State where he was three-time All-American. He’d play club soccer in the U.S., Spain, and Mexico, including a promotion run with Real Betis. He was the 1994 CONCACAF Player of the Year.

The 2 Robbies podcast: U-20 MNT head coach Tab Ramos

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Robbie Mustoe and Robbie Earle are joined by former U.S. men’s international midfielder and current Under-20 men’s head coach, Tab Ramos, to discuss youth soccer’s development in the United States (1:15), Christian Pulisic‘s start at Chelsea (13:45), and how the USMNT era under Gregg Berhalter is going so far (21:10).

To listen to more lively conversations and passionate debate from Robbie Earle and Robbie Mustoe, subscribe to The 2 Robbies Podcast on Apple Podcasts or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

Click here for The 2 Robbies archive ]

Follow them on Twitter @The2Robbies

Sargent’s Gold Cup exclusion is Berhalter’s first truly baffling USMNT decision

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If this was Jurgen Klinsmann, he’s be absolutely skewered.

Gregg Berhalter made his first true Klinsmann-esque head-scratcher when he released the final 23-man Gold Cup roster, leaving Josh Sargent at home in favor of fellow strikers Gyasi Zardes and Jordan Morris.

It’s an absolutely baffling decision with little upside, foresight, or thought put in the process. If this was Klinsmann at the helm, the pitchforks and torches would be out en masse.

The 19-year-old Werder Bremen frontman was brought into the preliminary Gold Cup squad at the expense of a position with the likes of Timothy Weah and Paxton Pomykal at the U-20 World Cup group, where Sargent would have likely been the first-choice striker ahead of Sebastian Soto. To be fair, Soto is having an excellent U-20 World Cup, with his brace helping topple the favorites France in their Round of 16 meeting.

Yet still, had Sargent been in Poland, he would have received gobs of playing time and been a first-team regular racking up meaningful minutes on the pitch. Berhalter sacrificed that to bring Sargent into the Gold Cup fold, a clear indication that the Missouri-born teen was firmly in the mix for a first-team role. This highlights the first of many reasons Sargent’s exclusion is a massive mistake by Berhalter and his USMNT front office…as a 19-year-old, what Sargent needs most is game time. If the decision-makers wished to sacrifice valuable minutes in a high-leverage tournament with Tab Ramos and company, it should have been to get Sargent time with the senior squad. That doesn’t mean he necessarily had to play a bunch at the Gold Cup; being with the senior squad alone is valuable enough for a player of his age to make a fair trade-off from U-20 World Cup time.

Consider what Tab Ramos said a month ago when the U-20 World Cup preliminary roster was announced, with Sargent’s inclusion. “We weren’t 100% sure because of the playing time situation, so I did put him on the 50-man roster, but it’s clear that he’s going into the summer with the senior national team. So it’s best that he continues to move in that direction.”

Clearly the intent was to have Sargent be with the senior squad for the long-term. Instead, the striker is now sitting on his couch this summer, neither racking up high-leverage minutes in Poland or gaining valuable experience with the senior squad. How does that make any sense? The potential successor to Jozy Altidore‘s throne is simply cast aside.

The above quotes from Berhalter after the loss to Jamaica Wednesday night provide the perfect transition to the second reason this is flat out wrong. Berhalter said Sargent is “the striker for the national team in the future,” yet the new head man would willingly sacrifice his development to include Jordan Morris and Gyasi Zardes on the Gold Cup roster, like the Gold Cup is some win-at-all-costs trophy that needs even backups and third-stringers to be tip-top game-ready. With the unceremonious death of the Confederations Cup, the Gold Cup is almost entirely meaningless. Yes, it still counts as the confederation’s main continental tournament, and it certainly provides a competitive bridge between four-year cycles to be taken seriously, but the ultimate goal of the USMNT is undoubtedly a successful end to World Cup qualification. Yet Berhalter is treating the Gold Cup like the World Cup itself, taking the very best 23 players instead of building for the future by making sure the team is as prepared as possible to qualify for Qatar 2022.

The Gold Cup should be taken for what it is: a meaningful tournament that gives the team a chance to gain minutes on the field together and prepare the future of the squad for the truly important World Cup qualifiers. Leaving Sargent at home for the likes of Zardes and Morris completely contradicts that. Even if Berhalter sacrificed a wide player like Tyler Boyd or Jonathan Lewis to keep four strikers just so Sargent could be with the team, it would have made more sense…there’s enough width on the roster between Paul Arriola and versatile players like Zardes, Christian Roldan, and Christian Pulisic that the team makeup would remain healthy.

Finally, for Berhalter to suggest that Sargent’s play on the field is far enough behind the likes of Zardes and Morris that it warrants his total exclusion from the squad – after he was kept home from Poland specifically for senior squad experience – is just flat out insulting to U.S. fans who know he could do the job against the likes of Panama and Trinidad & Tobago if necessitated. Surely the staff didn’t decide Sargent’s Gold Cup squad-readiness based on one B-team friendly against Jamaica where the entire attack was bogged down?

At 19 years old, Sargent is a bright talent and clearly Berhalter and company see him as the future of the USMNT attack. He doesn’t need rest after playing just 1,267 professional minutes this past season, including just 205 with the senior Werder Bremen squad. His development is still progressing, and for the kid to reach his full potential, he needs to be treated as the player the national team sees him becoming. Leaving him at home this summer because he’s not a first-team option – which in and of itself is debatable – is incredibly short-sighted and calls the true direction of Berhalter’s staff into serious question. This isn’t yet a fireable offense by any means, but after what fans were put through under Klinsmann, it harkens back to the German’s tenure full of baffling personnel decisions and questionable lineup choices that fans do not wish to be put through again. Recalling the previous incumbency by putting the Gold Cup on such a pedestal that it sacrifices the future of the national team in any way is enough to unearth bad memories and make any U.S. fan groan in disgust.

U.S. U-20s meeting potential head-on

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The Yanks are coming.

Given the past year for the U.S. men’s national team, that’s a statement which might’ve required different and perhaps excessive punctuation even a few months before the U-20 World Cup in Poland.

Maybe: The Yanks are coming?

Or even: The Yanks are coming?!?

[ RECAP: France 2-3 U.S. U-20s ]

There was a cautious optimism regarding the United States U-20 team heading into the tournament, no doubt. Tab Ramos’ men had suitcases full of swagger and a boatload of nerve honed from win after win in CONCACAF and plenty of advancement in their club careers.

Sebastian Soto and Timothy Weah had broken into the fold at Hannover 96 and Celtic (and PSG). Paxton Pomykal was having one of the best seasons of any midfielder in MLS, and a handful of players including Chris Richards and Alex Mendez took MLS Academy-developed careers to Bundesliga clubs.

Ukraine, Nigeria, and Qatar was a manageable group, not an easy one, but if the hype and hope met halfway the Baby Yanks could have a shot at placing for the first time in 20 years (when the tournament had fewer teams).

Looking at the tournament field, the mandate of the ambitious seemed simple: Don’t just advance, but win the group and probably avoid France. The oddsmakers had France as better than even money to win the tournament.

So when the Baby Yanks’ early 1-0 lead turned into a 2-1 deficit via goals before and after halftime, many would’ve been forgiven for sensing in air of inevitability. That Ramos’ men would flip the script with two goals in the final 16 minutes was wondrous.

Perhaps that amazement is a product of how much weight was put on the Baby Yanks winning Group D with the hopes of avoiding France. Maybe that added to the specter of Les Bleus, casting a longer shadow over the field.

Of course it could all fall apart for the U-20s against Ecuador, even though the Yanks will be favored in Gdynia. These are young players, more likely to be swayed by in-game emotions. Wisdom is there to be gained from these tournaments, win or lose.

Yet this makes three-straight quarterfinal berths for the U.S. who, by the way, has U-20 eligible Josh Sargent on USMNT duty.

It’s a terrific feather in the cap of Ramos, whose 2017 squad took eventual finalists Venezuela to penalty kicks in the quarters and had neither Christian Pulisic nor Weston McKennie on the roster (Tyler Adams and Sargent were there, it should be noted).

That Venezuela team, for what it’s worth, lost to England who had Lewis Cook, Dominic Solanke, Dominic Calvert-Lewin as three of a several to now have Premier League experience under their belts. 2015 winners, Serbia, defeated the U.S. in the quarters (penalty kicks) and had Sergej Milinković-Savić and Marko Grujic.

The U-20 World Cup isn’t a kingmaker of a tournament, and many stars of this month (and last) won’t dance onto FIFPro Best XI, but tell any sad sacks trying to thumb their nose at this U.S. win to take a hike.

Only eight teams will remain once Argentina and Mali finish their tangle on Tuesday, and the United States is alive. For a men’s program which failed so fantastically in World Cup and Olympic qualifying, these wins are welcome feats of strength.

And really, it could be huge given the full USMNT’s promise under Gregg Berhalter, with three key players 20 years old and promise building into the Gold Cup and, we can only hope, the 2022 World Cup.