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Llanez, Young USMNT Enjoy Bright Moments in Win vs. Costa Rica

Young players stepped up and showed promise for the United States against Costa Rica. The same could not be said for the Southern California crowd.

Minus all of its top European-based players outside of a FIFA international window, a young U.S. men’s national team beat a more experienced Costa Rica, 1-0, in Carson, Calif., on Saturday. The standout player for the U.S. was 18-year-old winger Ulysses Llanez, who scored from the penalty spot on his national team debut.

Four months after Costa Rica’s previous coach, Gustavo Matosas, had quit his job by saying he was “bored,” several of the Tico players looked lethargic and bored on Saturday as well.

But that wasn’t the case for the majority of the Americans, who had the upper hand for the first third of the game possession-wise and got a deserved goal early in the second half after right back Reggie Cannon pushed up and earned a penalty following a nice pass from Paul Arriola.

Here are three thoughts on the game:

Llanez couldn’t have asked for a much better debut 

The Wolfsburg under-19 player was competing in front of his family and home fans, where he used to play for LA Galaxy II, and showed some cojones to step up and take the penalty when he got a chance. 

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Llanez, playing on the left wing, created some dangerous moments in the early parts of the game, but he slowed down for a stretch after a rough collision with Costa Rican goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado. Llanez seemed refreshed after halftime, though, and coolly slotted home the penalty before joining his teammates in a turn-around-jumper goal celebration honoring Kobe Bryant. (Bryant was also honored by the U.S. players, who wore warmup kits with Bryant's No. 24 on them, while the fans in attendance held a tribute in the 24th minute of the match.)

A Mexican-American who still is eligible to play for both countries at the senior level, Llanez could be a significant part of March’s Olympic qualifying tournament for the U.S. if Wolfsburg can be convinced to release him for the games.

Several other young Americans had promising games

Sam Vines of the Colorado Rapids started at left back, worked well with Llanez and got upfield on several occasions. Jesús Ferreira, cleared by FIFA on the eve of the match after recently becoming a U.S. citizen and needing to go through the paperwork process, got the start at center forward and had a few good moments on the ball. And Cannon, who has a bit more experience, patrolled the right side well from the back to the front. 

A bit less impressive was Brenden Aaronson, though he still was able to unspool one good shot on goal. Ultimately, this was a good opportunity for coach Gregg Berhalter to go with several players who will be age-eligible to play in the Olympic qualifying tournament as the U.S. hopes to advance to the Olympics for the first time since 2008. Intriguingly, Costa Rica—whom the U.S. will play in the opening game of that Olympic qualifying tournament—chose not to start several Olympic age-eligible players and instead went with older teammates.

This was a weak crowd

Granted, this was hardly the varsity playing, but the announced attendance of 9,172—which was far more than the number of actual butts in seats—was a real bummer. Why couldn’t U.S. Soccer give free tickets to kids in L.A. for a game like this? Why couldn’t there be some sort of imaginative idea that would have drawn more fans out to L.A. at a glorious time of the year there weather-wise? Maybe another location for the game would have drawn more attendance? From a soccer sense, this game was promising. From an atmosphere sense, it could have been a lot better.