CARSON, Calif. – Gregg Berhalter pieced together an extremely young roster for his second January camp as US men’s national team head coach, a nod to the emerging generation of players and the importance of qualifying for this summer's Olympic games in Tokyo.
That youth was tested, too, in Saturday’s camp-ending friendly, a 1-0 triumph over Costa Rica at Dignity Health Sports Park. Six players in the starting XI were age-eligible for the Concacaf Olympic qualifiers that begin March 20 in Mexico, and another three age-eligible ones came off the bench. The goal was even provided by two possible Olympic fixtures, after FC Dallas right back Reggie Cannon won a penalty kick and LA Galaxy academy product Ulysses Llanez converted from the spot.
Strong performances from Llanez, who plays at German club VfL Wolfsburg, and Cannon stood out. FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira, Colorado Rapids left back Sam Vines, Philadelphia Union attacking midfielder Brenden Aaronson and San Jose Earthquakes regista Jackson Yueill all had bright moments, too, suggesting things are progressing according to plan.
“The whole message of the guys is they're ready,” Berhalter said. “We watched them train for the last four weeks, and we see the level that they're bringing. It was a good month, we worked on a lot of things, you can see their understanding is there, you can see the concepts are there, and I think that gave them confidence.”
Philadelphia center back Mark McKenzie, FCD midfielder Brandon Servania and Colorado winger Jonathan Lewis fared well off the bench. That contributed to Jason Kreis, head coach of the US U-23s, declaring the four-week camp an overall success.
“It was obviously a really, really super good experience for all of us to spend a month together, working with Gregg and getting more of an in-depth picture of what he wants with playing-style perspective,” Kreis said. “Then, obviously, individual performances of the players. There's seven players today to get their first caps, and six of the seven are Olympic age-eligible players.
“It's a good day. It's a very, very good day for US Soccer, and I think a small snapshot of what the future can look like.”
Kreis likely won't have some of the top age-eligible players – Chelsea's Christian Pulisic, Schalke's Weston McKennie and Werder Bremen's Josh Sargent among them – for qualifiers. The US will be looking for an Olympic return after missing out on the 2012 (London) and 2016 (Rio de Janeiro) tournaments.
Kreis particularly noted how valuable it was to spend time with Llanez and Cannon.
“It's the first time I've ever worked with Uly, and his performance in the match, I think that's a real positive ...,” Kreis said. “This was my first opportunity to work with Reggie. I've been seeing him from afar, but being able to be around him in the camp, you start to understand that the kid has real leadership capabilities, and that's good, because when you're working with young players and especially a team that's going to be in difficult circumstances, you want to have some nice leaders around. He certainly seems to be capable of that.”
During his post-game press conference, Berhalter also showered praise on a number of younger players, some of whom are strengthening their USMNT cases.
“Reggie was a leader throughout this whole camp,” Berhalter said. “His performance in training the whole month and the scrimmage games was excellent. Jackson was a steady influence, with his passing lanes and breaking lines. He gives you a dimension that you need, especially against a compact opponent. ...
“But the other ones, like Mark McKenzie, Sam Vines, Brandon Servania, Brenden Aaronson. It was really nice to see these guys get on the field and be able to perform."