A Ulysses Llanez penalty gave the United States a deserved 1-0 friendly win over Costa Rica in Carson, California, on Saturday afternoon to put the wraps on the team's January camp.
Llanez, an 18-year-old native of nearby Lynwood, California, buried a penalty kick in the corner in the 50th minute, slotting the ball to the left of goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado, who dove the other way.
Llanez celebrated by miming a fadeaway jump shot in a tribute to retired Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash along with eight others last Sunday.
Even before Llanez's goal celebration, both teams honored Bryant. Costa Rica posed for its pregame team photo while holding a No. 24 Ticos jersey, while the U.S. supporters broke out in cheers and chants of "Kobe! Kobe!" when 24:00 came up on the scoreboard.
Bryant supported AC Milan while growing up in Italy, and he later backed Barcelona.
"It was an emotional week. We were on the training field when it happened, and the first thing is just disbelief," said U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter. "You just can't believe something like that happened. And our hearts go out to all the victims.
"It's a terrible accident. And then when you talk about Kobe, he's a guy that was tied very closely to soccer."
USMNT start important year with 'a good step forward'
Brian Dunseth contextualizes the USMNT's win vs. Costa Rica in their first match of 2020.
Seven Americans made their national team debuts, including four starters: Llanez, 18-year-old midfielder Brenden Aaronson, 19-year-old striker Jesus Ferreira and 20-year-old left back Sam Vines. Three more Americans made their debuts as second-half substitutes: midfielder Brandon Servania and defenders Mark McKenzie and Chase Gasper.
All the debuting players except Gaspar are eligible for the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament, a competition limited to players under 23. The U.S. opens against Costa Rica on March 20, and this early-year experience could speed the laborious process of building chemistry among the youngsters before they fight for a trip to Japan.
Overall, coach Berhalter's lineup averaged 23 years, 216 days and was the American team's youngest ever for the exhibition matches that follow their annual January camp.
Berhalter said: "I mean, the whole message of the guys is they're ready. We watched them train for the last four weeks and we've seen the level that they're bringing, and it was a good month. I think we worked on a lot of things. You can see the understanding was there.
"You can see the concepts were there. And I think that gave them confidence."
Llanez is a former LA Galaxy prospect now playing in Germany for Wolfsburg's youth team. After getting invited to the team's January camp and impressing his coaches, Llanez became the 54th player to score in his U.S. debut.
Only two matches in U.S. history featured more debut starters than this exhibition on the Galaxy's home field south of downtown Los Angeles. The American team fielded five newcomers in a match against Canada in September 1992 and against Panama last June.
Ever since the U.S. missed out on the 2018 World Cup with a humiliating loss to Trinidad and Tobago in October 2017, the new coaching staffs have employed 81 players, including 43 making debuts.
Shortly after Llanez and Alvarado both walked away from a scary collision in the scoreless first half, LA Galaxy defender Giancarlo Gonzalez put a header off the crossbar for Costa Rica in the 24th minute.
Gyasi Zardes put a header just over the goal line in the 86th minute but was ruled offside.
Berhalter's team will next be in action on March 26 in a friendly against the Netherlands in Eindhoven (live on ESPN2 at 4:30 p.m. ET).