In its first game of the decade, the United States Men’s National Team cruised to a rather comfortable 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in Carson, CA. 18-year-old Ulysses Llanez impressed in his international debut and scored the team’s only goal from the penalty spot.
While Costa Rica started familiar faces, USMNT Head Coach Gregg Berhalter chose a young starting lineup, with midfielder Paul Arriola as the player with the most caps (33). Sean Johnson started in goal behind a back line comprised of Reggie Cannon, captain Aaron Long, Walker Zimmerman, and Sam Vines. The midfield featured Jackson Yueill, Brenden Aaronson, and Sebastian Lletget while Arriola, Jesus Ferreira, and 18-year-old Ulysses Llanez played up front.
It was the USMNT debut for Vines, Aaronson, Ferreira, and Llanez, and all four could take part in the 2020 Concacaf Men’s Olympic Qualifying Championship next month.
The U.S. put the pressure on early with a string of corner kicks, but lacked the finishing touch once the ball got into the box. While Cannon and Arriola performed well on the right side of the field to create chances, the youngsters made their presence known as well. Llanez had a few flashes of individual ability to shake defenders and open up space, but his shots and crosses were deflected by a tight Costa Rican defense.
Ferreira created the USMNT’s first real chance to score in the 14th minute. The 19-year-old deftly stepped into space to receive a pass and then gave a great ball in on goal to Arriola, whose shot went low but not wide enough to get past Costa Rican goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado.
Momentum shifted in the 23rd minute when the U.S. defense broke down on a Costa Rican free kick. The ball was sent into the box and the USMNT couldn’t collapse on it before Giancarlo Gonzalez put his head to it directly in front of the goal, somehow hitting the crossbar and bouncing out of harm’s way for the U.S.
After nearly scoring, Costa Rica settled into the game and held possession a bit more although they continued to sit deep defensively. The U.S. changed course after spending a majority of the first half attacking the right side, leaning on left back Sam Vines.
In his first USMNT first team game, Vines was a little uncomfortable at times but worked past defenders and opened up space on the left side. The fruits of his labor were nearly claimed in the 34th minute after he earned and took a corner kick that Long couldn’t convert after getting his head on the end of it.
The Yanks started to reclaim their footing as the first half wore on, with Aaronson getting in on the action in the 44th minute and sending a shot only a yard wide of goal. Just a minute later, Lletget nearly scored with a curling shot that forced Alvarado to make a diving save to push it out of play.
The referee ended the half before the corner kick could be taken and the first half ended scoreless. Regardless, the U.S. looked to be the more comfortable side and out-shot Costa Rica 8-3 with 69% of possession. Although Arriola and Lletget had the best scoring chances of the half, the younger Americans did fairly well in their international debuts and no substitutions were made at halftime.
The second half started similarly to the first for the U.S., with Arriola and Cannon leading the charge right off the bat. In the 48th minute, Arriola held the ball inside the box until Cannon sprung forward. Arriola played Cannon in on goal and the FC Dallas defender was promptly brought down by Randall Leal before he could shoot, the referee promptly pointing to the penalty spot.
It was Llanez who stepped up to take the penalty and he coolly tucked it away in the right side of goal after sending Alvarado the wrong way to become the youngest USMNT player to convert a penalty and score his first international goal. The California native gave a tribute to the late Kobe Bryant after scoring in front of the Los Angeles crowd and the U.S went up 1-0 in the match in the 50th minute.
The goal seemed to wake up Costa Rica as the Ticos switched to only three in the back and pushed forward. The U.S. defense made life difficult for the visitors, deflecting shots and goalkeeper Johnson didn’t have to work too hard.
Costa Rica’s best chance of the second half came in the 56th minute when Marco Urena had a close-range header from a corner kick. Doing his job on the back post, Cannon got in the way of the shot and Johnson collected it before a Costa Rican player could pounce on it.
Despite the lead, the U.S. continued to push for more and Lletget missed a chance in the 59th minute after a good string of passes in front of goal. Llanez used great awareness to lay the ball off to Lletget on his left, but the LA Galaxy midfielder fired wide.
The U.S. made its first substitutions of the game in the 62nd minute with forward Gyasi Zardes coming on for Ferreira and defender Mark McKenzie making his national team debut by coming in for Long. A few minutes later, Brandon Servania debuted as well when he came on for Aaronson in the midfield. In the 73rd minute, Llanez was substituted off for Jonathan Lewis, taking the long way off the pitch to relish the moment after a very impressive outing.
Johnson’s toughest save of the day came in the 75th minute, but it was far from difficult. Still, Johnson tracked the ball well to stay in good position after Costa Rica passed the ball around and fired from outside the box. It went straight at the New York City FC goalkeeper for an easy save and a few minutes later he was substituted for Bill Hamid.
Chase Gasper was the last substitute and seventh debutante of the day when he came in for Vines in the 77th minute.
While Arriola and Lletget continued to create chances and involve players on offense, LAFC’s Zimmerman became a force of his own in the attack. Dominating Costa Rican captain Gonzalez, Zimmerman connected on many corners and crosses and threw himself at anything that came his way before hustling back to defense. His best opportunity came in the 77th minute with a shot that forced Alvarado to kick the ball away off the line.
With the game winding down in the 86th minute, it looked like Zardes doubled the team’s lead. Off balance, the 28-year-old flicked a header over Alvarado to find the back of the net, but he was correctly ruled offside and the game ended 1-0.
The U.S. ended the with 17 shots, five of which were on target, and 61% of possession. Costa Rica improved in the second half and finished with 14 shots, but only two of them were on target and the experienced side looked like the lesser side. That being said, if Gonzalez had scored his unmarked header early in the game then who knows how things would’ve shaken out.
It was a strong game from the USMNT and a great start to the decade that showed off young talent like Llanez and Ferreira. With a trip to Europe in March and Olympic qualifying right around the corner, it will be interesting to see which players make more of a name for themselves as 2020 gets rolling.