CARSON, Calif. – When the referee pointed to the penalty spot, Ulysses Llanez snatched the ball and hustled to take the kick.
Paul Arriola had been the U.S. national team's top penalty-taker during the Americans' month-long training camp, but this wizened 24-year-old veteran could only be impressed by his 18-year-old teammate's confidence.
“When you see a player like that go up and say, ‘I got it,’ I mean, what am I going to do?" Arriola said with a laugh.
The U.S. is trying new lineups, new-ish formations and a whole bunch of new players with an eye on Olympic qualification, and Llanez's impressive goal got the year off to a successful start.
Llanez scored in his U.S. national team debut near his hometown, and a young American roster opened 2020 with a 1-0 exhibition victory over Costa Rica on Saturday.
Llanez, an 18-year-old native of nearby Lynwood, buried his penalty kick in the corner in the 50th minute. With at least 50 family members cheering him on from the stands, he calmly slotted the ball to the left of goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado, who dove the other way.
Llanez had an easy explanation for his boldness, which grew out of his increasing comfort with the U.S. team.
“I was home, you know?” said Llanez, a former LA Galaxy prospect now playing in Germany for Wolfsburg's under-19 team. “I had to at least do something. I have family and friends here, so I was hoping Paul would give me the PK.”
Llanez celebrated by miming a fallaway jump shot in a tribute to retired Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash along with eight others last Sunday.
After getting invited to January camp and impressing American coaches, Llanez became the 54th player to score in his U.S. debut.
Seven Americans made their national team debuts at the suburban stadium south of downtown Los Angeles, including four starters: Llanez, 18-year-old midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 19-year-old striker Jesús Ferreira and 20-year-old left back Sam Vines. Three more Americans made their debuts as second-half substitutes: midfielder Brandon Servania and defenders Mark McKenzie and Chase Gasper.
Llanez and Arriola played up front with Ferreira in a 4-3-3 formation. The players are still getting used to the new wrinkles added by coach Gregg Berhalter and under-23 team coach Jason Kreis, but the early results are promising.
“It’s a great honor to be part of this program, and they’re always going to remember their first game,” Berhalter said. “We’ve been training for four weeks now, and we knew the age of our guys, but we knew the capability of our guys. It was nice to see them grow throughout the month. We were very comfortable that they would be able to perform today.”
All the debuting players except Gaspar are eligible for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, a competition limited to players under 23. The U.S. opens against Costa Rica on March 20, and this early-year experience could speed the laborious process of building chemistry among the youngsters before they fight for a trip to Japan.
Overall, Berhalter's lineup averaged 23 years, 216 days and was the American team's youngest ever for the exhibition matches that follow the annual January camp.
“It’s a very, very good day for U.S. soccer, and a small snapshot of what I think the future can look like,” Kreis said.
Llanez said the entire team devised the goal celebration to honor Bryant, who has been on everyone's mind all week. The U.S. men warmed up for the game in identical jerseys featuring Bryant's No. 24, and Costa Rica posed for its pregame team photo while holding a No. 24 jersey.
The U.S. supporters broke out in cheers and chants of “Kobe! Kobe!” when 24:00 came up on the scoreboard.
Bryant supported AC Milan while growing up in Italy, and he later backed Barcelona. He prominently advocated for the U.S. men's and women's teams.
“He’s a guy that was tied very closely to soccer,” Berhalter said. “He’s a guy that represents competing at the ultimate level, and an inspiration to anyone who wants to be top in their sport. To lose someone like that this early is tough.”
Only two matches in U.S. history featured more debut starters than this exhibition on the Galaxy's home field south of downtown Los Angeles. The American team fielded five newcomers in a match against Canada in September 1992 and against Panama lin January 2019.
Ever since the U.S. missed out on the 2018 World Cup with a humiliating loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, the new coaching staffs have employed 81 players, including 43 making debuts.
Shortly after Llanez and Alvarado both walked away from a scary collision in the scoreless first half, Galaxy defender Giancarlo González put a header off the crossbar for Costa Rica in the 24th minute.
Llanez's penalty was awarded when substitute Randall Leal of Major League Soccer's new Nashville team brought down Reggie Cannon on a run deep into the box following a pass from Arriola.
Gyasi Zardes put a header just over the goal line in the 86th minute, but was ruled offside.