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The state of the USMNT

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Llanez, Ferreira offer a snapshot of what U.S. future could look like

CARSON, Calif. -- No sooner had referee Oshane Nation whistled a penalty for the U.S. against Costa Rica, when a bit of a wrestling match ensued over who would take it. Paul Arriola was there. So was Jesus Ferreira. Yet it was 18-year-old Uly Llanez who ultimately convinced his teammates that he should be the one to take the spot kick.

"I just wanted to shoot the PK because I was home," the Lynwood, California native said. "[Arriola] asked me when I got the ball, he was like, 'Do you want it?' I was like, 'Yeah, I really want this. I have my family here and I'm confident, and I know I'm going to score this goal.' So he said, 'All right, take it then.' So he told me I could take it, but me and Jesus were going back and forth, but I ended up taking the PK."

Llanez, who became the youngest player to convert a penalty for the U.S., delivered a cool finish -- and celebrated with a Kobe Bryant-inspired fadeaway jumper -- giving the U.S. a 1-0 victory. The only issue now is that Llanez has a bit of a debt to pay to his teammate.

As he was holding the match ball signed by his teammates, Llanez said with a smile: "In the locker room [Arriola] came up to me and he was like, 'Next time, I'm shooting the PK.'"

U.S. manager Gregg Berhalter said afterward there was no designated penalty taker assigned, so Llanez didn't violate any kind of unwritten rule. In fact, Berhalter felt it was entirely in character for Llanez to put himself forward.

"It's typical [Llanez] took the penalty because that's what type of player he is. He plays with confidence," Berhalter said. "And I think you saw that even from the beginning of the game. You didn't see nerves, he's going at guys 1-v-1, he's getting into good spaces, he's running behind the lines, a real good combination of things that he did in the game today."

On a day in which Berhalter started six Olympic-eligible players, and handed international debuts to seven performers overall, Llanez's tally was a fitting highlight. Matches that conclude January camps are always about the future and that was the case here. But there was a sense of immediacy as well. Olympic qualifying begins in less than two months, so the sight of seeing so many of them perform well offered some hope that the U.S. can qualify for the tournament for the first time since the Beijing Games in 2008.

In fact, the happiest man in the building might have been U.S. U23 manager Jason Kreis, who has been serving as Berhalter's assistant for the past month.

"It's a very, very good day for U.S. soccer, and a small snapshot of what the future could look like," Kreis said.

Ferreira, who was only cleared to play for the U.S. on Friday morning, showed off some clever touches. Reggie Cannon won the penalty and was a consistent threat going forward, as was Sam Vines on the opposite flank. Jackson Yueill showed off his range of passing once again.

Kreis was especially pleased with Ferreira's performance, and the player's versatility makes him a prime candidate to make the final Olympic qualifying roster.

"Knowing that we only have 17 field players available that we can put on the roster, you really kind of need to look at every player as being able to play multiple positions," Kreis said. "Jesus Ferreira definitely suits that bill."

The U.S. wasn't playing against a bunch of stiffs either. Granted, this wasn't Costa Rica's A-team, but manager Ronald Gonzalez's lineup featured six players with at least 36 caps heading into the match. This included a pair of players who had tormented the U.S. in the past in Johan Venegas and Marco Urena. The rest had at least appeared internationally before. Contrast that with the fact that the U.S. lineup had four players making their international debuts.

Add it all up, and it was a solid performance from the U.S. The buildup looked sharp at times, and while there were some vulnerabilities in transition and from set pieces, the home side was well worth its win, especially given that many of the players were in preseason mode.

Of course, Llanez is one player who is in midseason form. He has been scoring for Wolfsburg's U19 team at a prodigious clip of 10 goals in 11 games. But the winger admitted that his initial months in Germany were beyond difficult.

"It was terrible," he said. "I felt like it was just wasn't for me. I felt like Europe wasn't for me. I felt like I made the wrong decision. There would be days where I'd cry, I'd be lonely."

Friends and family pulled him through, and slowly he began to adapt.

"After like the fourth month, fifth month, I thought, 'You know what, I'm already here so I might as well just make the most of it,'" he said. "My family sacrificed for me, so I'm going to sacrifice for them so hopefully I can give them something better in life."

Now it looks as if Llanez's perseverance has paid off, and netting the only goal in front of around 50 friends and family made Saturday a day to remember.

"Having my family here and scoring in front of them, this is something that brought joy to me," he said. "After the game I gave my shirt to my mom and she just started crying. It just brought so much joy into my into my life and I want to keep doing it."

There are still more roads to be traveled, both long and short. The U.S. is certainly in no position to be overconfident heading into qualifying given its failure to advance to the past two Olympic tournaments. There is still considerable and justified skepticism emanating from the U.S. fan base about the men's team.

But for one day at least, there looks to be a path forward. Now it's up to Llanez and the rest to take advantage.

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