USMNT opens 2020 with friendly win over Costa Rica

Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images
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World, meet Ulysses Llanez. Ulysses Llanez, meet the world.

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Llanez, an 18-year-old winger who joined Bundesliga side Wolfsburg last April, made his U.S. men’s national team debut in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Costa Rica and not only scored the game’s only goal, but shone ever so brightly throughout his 73-minute shift.

Saturday’s showing — particularly during the first half — stood in stark contrast to January-camp friendlies of years past, when the possession and build-up play was horrifically disjointed and and had the exact look of what the game really was: an inconsequential game featuring a roster largely on the (far) outside looking in at the first team. Instead of that, Saturday was… good.

Midfielders Ulysses Llanez, Sebastian Lletget and Sam Vines combined down the left wing and found plenty of space to exploit in the final third. Of course, it was either the final pass from Llanez, or the finishing touch from Paul Arriola, that was missing.

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After being under siege and created virtually nothing during the game’s opening 20 minutes, Costa Rica came within inches of opening the scoring in the 24th minute. Set-piece defending has been an issue for the Yanks for years now, though they got away with another poorly defended free kick this time. The service came from 30 yards out and found Johan Venegas near Sean Johnson‘s left-hand post, and Venegas was free to head the ball straight across the face of goal where Giancarlo Gonzalez was waiting all by himself. Unfortunately for Los Ticos, the crossbar made a key save.

The USMNT’s closest scoring chance came with the final kick of the first half, when Lletget slalomed past two defenders and uncorked a right-footed curler toward the far post. Alvarado was, once again, up to the challenge and pushed the ball around the post to keep it scoreless at halftime.

The second half brought a bit more joy inside the penalty area, practically immediately. Reggie Cannon combined with Arriola down the right side of the box and Cannon was pulled down near the end line in the 48th minute. A penalty kick was given and Llanez stepped up and shouldered the responsibility. He sent Alvarado one way and slotted the ball into the corner to the other side.

The USMNT will reconvene with a first-team squad for a pair of friendlies away to the Netherlands and Wales in late March.