Uly Llanez readily admits his soccer game is still lacking in several areas. But it’s missing nothing when it comes to confidence.
Which is how the teenager, in his debut with the senior national team, found himself standing at the penalty spot Saturday, five minutes into the second half of a scoreless tie with Costa Rica.
Paul Arriola, the most experienced U.S. player on the field, was supposed to take the shot. But Llanez never let him near the ball.
“What am I gonna do?” Arriola said later. “I’m a team player. It doesn’t matter who’s going to score it, as long as we scored that goal.”
Llanez did, giving the U.S. a 1-0 victory in its first game of 2020. But the win was far from the most important thing the Americans got out of the match. With qualifying for this summer’s Olympics Games in Tokyo, an age-restricted tournament, less than two months away, U.S. coach Gregg Berhalter used this January’s training camp to audition many of the U-23 players eligible for that competition.
On Saturday he turned many of those players loose, using the youngest lineup ever for winter-camp game. Four of the starters, including Llanez, were making their national team debuts; three other first-timers came off the bench.
The U.S. hasn’t seen more players earn their first international cap in the same game since September 1992.
“It’s a very, very good day for U.S. Soccer. And I think a small snapshot of what the future can look like,” Olympic coach Jason Kreis said.
A very, very good day at the start of a very, very big year.
The U.S., which failed to qualify for the last World Cup, will begin qualifying for the next one this summer. Before that comes Olympic qualifying in March, a tournament the U.S. has survived just once since 2000.
If the U.S. makes it to Japan, it could field its strongest U-23 team in a generation, one anchored by Christian Pulisic, Weston McKennie, Tyler Adams, Josh Sargent and Sergiño Dest. All five are playing for first-division clubs in Europe, however, and are unlikely to be released for the regional qualifying event, leaving it to the likes of Llanez and Jesus Ferreira, a Colombian-born teenager who wasn’t cleared to play for the U.S. until Friday, to win the U.S. a berth in the Olympics.
“It’s an opportunity for guys to step up, be battle-tested in the CONCACAF qualifying format, and learn from it,” Berhalter said. “It’s a good testing ground.”
If that’s the test, the Costa Rica match was something of a pop quiz. And it’s one the young Americans aced. In addition to Llanez, 18, and Ferreira, 19, Berhalter started another teenager in 19-year-old Brenden Aaronson. He also used three 20-year-olds in Sam Vines, Mark McKenzie and Brandon Servania.
“We were training for four weeks now and we knew the age of our guys, we knew the capabilities of our guys. And it was nice to see them grow throughout the month,” Berhalter said. “We were very comfortable that they would be able to perform today.”
None performed better than Llanez, who grew up in Lynwood, a dozen miles from Dignity Health Sports Park where Saturday’s game was played. Llanez spent four years in the Galaxy academy, but after growing uncertain he’d ever get a game chance to play for the MLS team which makes that stadium home, he left 15 months ago to pursue options in Germany.
That made Saturday’s homecoming, played before more than 50 friends and family members, special.
“Since I was 14, I wanted to play in the stadium. But I never got there,” he said.
So when Reggie Cannon got his feet tangled with Costa Rica’s midfielder Randall Leal and went down in the box, drawing a penalty minutes after the intermission, Llanez went straight to the spot.
“He was like, ‘do you want it?,” Llanez said of Arriola. “I [said] ‘yeah, I really want this. My family’s here and I’m confident. I’m scoring this goal’.”
Arriola, who scored in his first international match four years ago, didn’t argue and seconds later Llanez drilled his shot into the bottom right corner, becoming the third-youngest American to score in his debut and the first teenager to score on a penalty kick since at least 1990.
Llanez then raced to the east sideline where he was mobbed by teammates before emerging from the scrum to feint a fadeaway jumper, his tribute to the late Kobe Bryant.
When the final whistle sounded, he peeled his sweat-soaked jersey off and handed it his mother, who cried. Llanez was also confident that would happen too.