A short-handed young United States men’s national team kicked off its 2020 slate with a surprisingly polished performance, beating regional rival Costa Rica 1-0 on a second half penalty kick from 18-year-old debutant Ulysses Llanez in Saturday’s friendly in Carson, California.
Here are three quick thoughts on the victory:
A mature performance from young USMNT
As is the case every winter, the Americans were without their contingent of European-based starters, with the likes of Chelsea’s Christian Pulisic and Ajax’s Sergino Dest in the middle of their club seasons and therefore unavailable.
But coach Gregg Berhalter’s roster for this match was even more inexperienced this year; at 23 years and 216 days on average, his lineup against the Ticos was the youngest ever for a January/February match. Part of that was by design. The U.S. has one eye on March’s Olympic qualifying tournament, and six players who are age-eligible for the U-23 national team that will compete in that event were in Berhalter’s 11 on Saturday.
Costa Rica, the Americans’ opponent in that qualifying opener, were also expected to field a green side. But manager Ronald Gonzalez had other ideas, leaving all eight of his U-23s on the bench in favor of a far more experienced team.
It could’ve meant a long day for the hosts. Instead, the young Americans took the game to the Ticos from the start, dominating the eye test and every statistical category long before Reggie Cannon was hauled down shortly after halftime to send Llanez to the spot:
— U.S. Soccer MNT (@USMNT) February 1, 2020
Berhalter’s team wasn’t perfect by any means. The U.S. was lucky not to get scored on midway through the first half, when Ticos and LA Galaxy center back Giancarlo Gonzalez rattled the crossbar in his home stadium after beating U.S. keeper Sean Johnson with a free header.
But the home team prevented Costa Rica from troubling Johnson much outside of that chance, and always seemed likelier to get the second goal. It eventually came, too, but Gyasi Zardes was correctly ruled offside.
Debutants Jesus Ferreira, Ulysses Llanez impress
Berhalter handed first caps to four players: Llanez, 19-year-old attackers Brenden Aaronson and Jesus Ferreira, and left back Sam Vines, 20.
None of the four looked out of place. Llanez, in particular, was a breath of fresh air. Playing as a left forward, the Los Angeles-area native’s quick feet kept the Costa Rican defenders off balance all afternoon. He showed plenty of confidence in stepping up to take the penalty and converted it like a grizzled veteran, sending visiting keeper Esteban Alvarado diving the wrong way.
Central striker Ferreira didn’t get on the score sheet, but the USMNT’s latest recruit also showed glimpses of his qualify. The son of former Colombian international David Ferreira committed his international future to the U.S. earlier this week.
Aaronson had a few nice runs out of midfield, and Vines showed well at a position that the U.S. has struggled to fill for decades. Expect all to play a key role for U-23 coach Jason Kreis during March’s CONCACAF tournament in Mexico.
Focus shifts to Olympic qualifying
When the USMNT reconvenes in Europe in late March for a pair of friendlies against the Netherlands and Wales, the likes of Pulisic and Dest will be back in the fold. But even before that month’s FIFA window opens, senior team regulars such as Cannon and Jackson Yueill will be playing alongside Llanez, Ferreira and others with the U-23s in their all-important Olympic qualifying opener against Costa Rica.
With Mexico also in the group and only the top two teams advancing to the semifinal round, how the Americans fare against Costa Rica in March will go a long way toward determining whether they return to the Summer Games for the first time in a dozen years. They might like their chances after convincingly beating the Ticos’ senior team on Saturday.
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