CARSON, Calif. — It was only a January friendly, nothing much at stake, but don't blame U.S. Soccer's technical staff if they're feeling a little better about what the future holds following the United States' 1-0 victory over Costa Rica.
Especially up front.
Germany-based winger Ulysses Llanez and FC Dallas forward Jesus Ferreira enjoyed terrific debuts in Sunday's end-of-January-camp showdown at Dignity Health Sports Park with a rather experienced Ticos side, working in tandem with, especially, winger Paul Arriola and attacking midfielder Sebastian Lletget to create chances against a low-block defense that conceded little space, enough that the scoreline flattered the visitors.
Llanez, who grew up just five miles away and played with the LA Galaxy's academy and second team before taking off for VfL Wolfsburg when he turned 18 last April, scored the goal, converting a penalty kick five minutes into the second half, in front of several dozen family members and friends.
The Colombia-born Ferreira, who became an American citizen in December, just before his 19th birthday, and didn't receive word until Friday that he was eligible to play for the US, offered a nuanced performance that didn't result in any real looks at goal but led teammates to opportunities.
Berhalter, who gave seven players their first caps and used nine players eligible for this March's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, had plenty reason to be pleased.
“[Jesus'] opening phase was really good, him getting in between lines and really causing [Costa Rica] a difficult time,” US head coach Gregg Berhalter said to open his postgame session with media. “Our attacking mids did a good job of linking up with him, and I thought he was excellent.”
Llanez was particularly impressive.
“With Uly, it's typical he took the penalty, because that's what type of player he is,” Berhalter said. “He played with confidence, and I think you saw that, even at the beginning of the game. You didn't see nerves. He was going at guys 1-v-1, he was getting into good space, he was running behind the line. A real good combination of things he did in the game today. And his defensive work was strong as well.”
Ferreira, the son of 2010 MLS MVP David Ferreira, was at the heart of the first good US chance, taking a pass from FC Dallas teammate Reggie Cannon on the right flank and feeding a sprinting Arriola into the box, where the D.C. United attacker's shot was smothered by goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado.
“The one quality of [Ferreira's] is he's so good coming off the line and receiving it in between the lines and being able to drive at people,” Arriola said. “I mean, you see the first chance I get, him slipping the ball in, right? It's him coming off the line, receiving, turning, and a quick pass in. He does all those things right, and then he's a killer in the box.”
Llanez did nice work in helping to set up a chance late in the first half for fellow debutant Brenden Aaronson, nearly set up Arriola after cutting inside just before halftime, fed Lletget for a shot early in the second half, and just missed Gyasi Zardes in the goalmouth after taking a ball into the box from Sam Vines, another first-timer.
“It didn't look like the occasion was too big for him,” said Jason Kreis, the US under-23 national team coach, who worked alongside Berhalter during the camp. “He really didn't seem to shy away from anything in the match. And to step up the way he did to want to take the penalty kick, I think, says something about the character of the kid. That's a nice sign.”
Arriola had been taking penalties throughout the four-week camp, which was held in Bradenton, Florida, before moving to Southern California earlier this week. Llanez went for the ball as soon as Randall Leal, who'll make his MLS debut this year with Nashville SC, took down Cannon as he angled toward the net.
“I was home, you know, I had to at least do something ...,” said Llanez, who is from nearby Lynwood. “Just having my family here, scoring in front of them, is just [special]. After the game, I gave my shirt to my mom, and she just started crying. That just brought me so much joy into my life.”
Ferreira, who can play up top or as a withdrawn forward, required a FIFA waiver to play Saturday, and his ability to suit up for the Yanks was huge. He's eligible for the Olympic qualifiers, and “that changes things a lot,” Kreis noted.
“Especially knowing we only have 17 field players available that we can put on the roster,” he said. “You really kind of need to take a look at every player as being able to play multiple positions, and Jesus Ferreira definitely fits that role.”