It’s not too often that you see a national team make a roster change on the day of their first match at a major tournament, but that’s what the US Under-23 men announced on Thursday morning.
Creative attacker Ulysses Llanez is out with what’s termed an ankle injury, and two-way central midfielder Tanner Tessmann is in, news broken by MLSsoccer.com's very own Matt Doyle and officially announced mere hours before the United States’ massive Group A Concacaf Olympic qualifying match vs. Costa Rica at Estadio Jalisco in Guadalajara (5:30 pm ET | FS1, TUDN).
It’s another piece of brutal news for Llanez, an exquisitely talented player out of the LA Galaxy and Chivas USA academies who signed with Wolfsburg in 2019 but has been snakebit for months. He appeared in three of the senior USMNT’s four matches in 2020, starting two of them and earning man of the match honors on his debut, a friendly against Costa Rica.
He's since suffered through a difficult loan at Eredivisie side Heerenveen before returning to his native California to deal with a family issue, keeping him out of competitive match action for months. His potential is such that U-23s coach Jason Kreis brought him to Guadalajara anyway and had his staff working furiously to get Llanez fully fit and become the chance-creator the US need this month; it’s unclear if and how that situation played into the ankle injury. This was one of Kreis' gambles, and sadly for Llanez it didn't come off.
This is not a like-for-like swap, and that deserves some examination. First off, remember that COVID-19 protocols are a big factor here. Though no one ever publicly announced it, Tessmann didn’t leave the Guadalajara camp when he was left off the final tournament roster last week, instead sticking around as an alternate, and I strongly suspect that Kreis didn’t have the option of flying in someone who wasn’t already on site. Portland Timbers fans frustrated by the ongoing absence of Jeremy Ebobisse (who wasn’t even on the preliminary roster list) should keep this in mind.
But swapping a box-to-box player for a playmaker looks to me like a sign that Kreis wasn’t entirely comfortable with his original layout of center-mid options in the front-foot 4-3-3 the U-23s are expected to use just like the full national team.
As much as he's hailed the quality and versatility of Hassani Dotson and Johnny Cardoso, Tessmann is a purer fit for the twin No. 8s system, because it’s remarkably similar to what he does at FC Dallas. The 19-year-old homegrown from Alabama was a revelation in that role last season, flashing range and muscle when destroying opposition buildups, all while showing a surprisingly cultured passing touch for a rookie.
Tessmann might not have Llanez’s vision and upside, but he’s more ready to rock right now. In that sense, this change both lowers the ceiling and raises the floor for the U-23s, who absolutely have to get the engine room right against Costa Rica and Mexico.
With three pressure-packed group-stage games in seven days, I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Tessmann goes from final squad cut to starter over the next week.