The following piece is part of a yearlong series of stories commemorating significant moments in U.S. Soccer history as the U.S. Soccer Federation celebrates its 100th anniversary:
One of FIFA’s demands for granting the 1994 World Cup to the United States was the formation of a bona fide professional league, the first since the North American Soccer League folded 10 years earlier. It was 18 years ago today that Major League Soccer announced its first player acquisition, and it was a big one.
Tab Ramos, a three-time World Cup midfielder and one of the most creative players ever to pull on a U.S. jersey, agreed to bring his game back home, the first of the iconic stars from the 1990 and 1994 World Cup sides to pledge his future to the new league – and not without some risk.
Ramos, now 46 and head coach of the U.S. U-20 Men’s National Team, was among the Americans toiling successfully overseas, and if it was an enticing prospect to play on home soil, it also required a leap of faith.
When Sunil Gulati, then MLS's deputy commissioner and now U.S. Soccer's president, met up with Ramos on New Year's Day 1995, the new league existed more on paper than in reality. A plan to kick off later that year had already been abandoned, and Ramos was looking forward to a move from Real Betis in Spain to UANL Tigres in Mexico.
“It was a great honor for me [to be the first player],” Ramos said. “At the same time, I didn't know what to expect, so it was a little bit of a risk for me. I was hoping that by me signing, it would encourage other American players who were overseas, like Eric Wynalda or John Harkes, to also turn around and sign here as well.”
Wynalda and Harkes did sign on, and so did the other three players who had featured for both the 1990 and 1994 teams – Marcelo Balboa, Paul Caligiuri and Tony Meola - plus another nine of their ’94 teammates.
“I don’t know that [my signing was] the reason why,” Ramos said, “but it sort of snowballed a little, and people decided to take a chance on it.”
Ramos, who was born in Uruguay and moved with his family to New Jersey when he was 11, had flirted with America's previous league following a spectacular career at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark. He was drafted out of high school by the New York Cosmos, the NASL’s signature franchise, and trained for three months with the club before heading to North Carolina State, where he was a three-time All-American.
He spent some time in the American Soccer League before heading to Spain following the 1990 World Cup. He spent two seasons in the second division with Figueres and another with Real Betis, and his move to Mexico was prodded by a lack of playing time in Betis’ first season in La Liga after Leonardo’s errant elbow left him with a fractured skull in the USA’s second-round World Cup loss to Brazil at Stanford the previous summer.
“I really didn’t know anything about the league [during the 1994 World Cup],” Ramos said. “I did hear some rumors a league might be starting, but it wasn’t until I received a call from Sunil Gulati saying, 'This league is really going to happen; we’d love for you to be on board with it.’ That's when it really hit me for the first time.”
Ramos and Gulati met up in Dallas, then traveled together to Monterrey, Mexico.
“He was going to sign with Tigres, and what we decided at the very last moment was why not have a handshake to sign with MLS, and we would loan him to Tigres,” Gulati said. “The league wasn't far enough along to have a contract or a standard player agreement or any of that, so it was just a handshake.”
Ramos was promised a spot in either the New York or Washington, D.C. markets – “There weren’t even any names of teams or anything,” he notes – and the league had an influential player who could help attract more talent as it prepared for a spring 1996 debut.
“The fact that we decided to make him the first player, clearly that was consistent with the message we wanted to send about attacking players,” Gulati said. “We wanted an American player, and you had a Hispanic, attacking National Team player, so it was a perfect message for what we were trying to do with the league.”
Ramos spent a year and a half with Tigres, joining his hometown New York/New Jersey MetroStars at the end of the 1995-96 Mexican Primera Division season.
“I was excited to come home and start a new experience,” he said. “It was coming home and there was the draw of playing at Giants Stadium, where I had watched the Cosmos play and where I practiced with the Cosmos 10 years before. All those things were really important to me. Obviously, having my family here as well.
“And it was fun. It was fun drawing the big crowds the first couple of years. It was fun driving to the stadium, just to be part of the whole thing. It really truly felt like we had a professional league at home and it was going to stick.”
The Metros struggled to find success despite a collection of star players – including Roberto Donadoni, Branco and Lothar Matthaüs - and big-name coaches. They made the playoffs in 1996, then missed three times in the next six years, posting a 7-25 record in 1999, when Ramos was limited to five games because of injuries. They bounced back to win the East Division in 2000 and reached the league semifinals, the club's best finish until making it to MLS Cup in 2008.
“You always want to win,” Ramos said. “But sometimes when you get impatient about trying to win immediately, you take the risk that you have to constantly start over, and I think that's what happened most of the seven years I was at the MetroStars.”
Ramos had a superb first campaign, dishing out 10 assists in 25 games, but he was besieged by injuries during his last six seasons, an assortment of minor ailments and two ACL tears, and averaged just 13 starts per year.
“It was basically one injury after the next. It was a fight for me to try to get my fitness back,” said Ramos, who captained the MetroStars from 1999 until his retirement following the 2002 season. “And then it seemed like whenever I got healthy, I got called by the National Team right away, and then I would come back to MLS and get hurt again. It was very difficult, because I also felt the responsibility that I would really love to be able to lead this team to a championship – that's really what I wanted to do before I retire more than anything else – and it just got harder and harder.
“By the end, my body just couldn't do it any more. It was an injury and then a rehab; a constant of not getting to a good playing level. I tried as hard as I could. I couldn't have done things any differently.”
When he looks at MLS today, he's happily surprised.
“I’m amazed at the progress the league has made both on and off the field,” he said. “Owners have put their money into new stadiums and cities and fans have made serious commitments to their teams. We’ve developed a huge fan base in many markets, it’s just incredible.”
Ramos, who made 81 appearances for the U.S. National Team and was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame in 2005, went into coaching after he retired. He started the New Jersey Soccer Academy in 2004, won the U14 national championship four years later, and started working with U.S. Soccer national teams under Jurgen Klinsmann, assisting him on occasion with the full national team, working with the U-17s and serving as U-20 assistant coach before taking charge on a full-time basis 15 months ago. He's preparing the U-20s for the CONCACAF championships next month in Mexico and hopes to have them playing in the FIFA U-20 World Cup this summer in Turkey.
“I’ve been coaching now for close to 10 years, and I can tell you I really enjoy it,” said Ramos. “I love what I do and I couldn't see myself doing anything else.”
The MNT midfielder has come full circle, to a certain degree, and he now mentors players looking to make a name in the sport and league he helped build from the ground floor starting in 1995.
“At the end of the day, I owe the players and what I want beyond anything else would be for them to make progress and to become longtime national team members. The U-20 national team is just one little step in their careers. I’m just hoping that they take advantage to become decade-long national team players.”
-- Scott French