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USA vs. Costa Rica: What we Learned

The USMNT put up a seriously young side in their January camp match against Costa Rica and the youngsters were able to walk away with a 1-0 victory. Here’s what we learned.

Costa Rica v United States Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images

The United States wrapped up January camp with a 1-0 victory over Costa Rica in Carson, California. As is the case every year, the USMNT fielded a roster made almost exclusively of MLS players who are out-of-season because January camp does not fall on a FIFA date and clubs in Europe are not required to release their players. This year, Gregg Berhalter called in an especially young and experimental roster and a number of those young players came out and performed in this game. As a whole, the US was able to control the match, keeping just over 60% of possession, but the Stars and Stripes weren’t able to convert that into many threatening chances. Costa Rica almost exclusively played for counters and set pieces, nearly scoring in the 24th minute off of an elaborate free kick only to be thwarted by the goal post. The US was able to take the lead in the second half and then capably held on for the win. Here’s what we learned.

Boys Amongst Men

Normally, I have to make a disclaimer about the quality of the talent for these January camp games. Just as the US can’t call up the best players playing in Europe, the opponents cannot either. But, in Costa Rica’s case, even though they were limited to players from Costa Rica, MLS, and the American lower divisions, the starting eleven they fielded actually had quite a significant amount of experience. It most certainly was not a young and experimental side, with half the outfield players on at least their 50th cap.

In contrast, the USMNT starting eleven had almost a quarter as many caps between them as the starting Costa Rican players. For this January camp, Berhalter had made a deliberate choice to call in a very young squad. In the spring, the U-23 men’s team will have to qualify for the Olympics. Just like January camp, clubs are not required to release players for the Olympic qualifiers. As a result, we can expect senior players who are within the age requirements like Christian Pulisic, Tyler Adams, Weston McKennie, and Sergiño Dest, to miss out, while MLS based players and players still with their youth teams still available. As a result, this camp gave a number of the players the opportunity to make an impression and get their name on that roster. Indeed, six players eligible for the Olympics started: Jackson Yueill, Jesus Ferreira, Ulysses Llanez, Sam Vines, Brenden Aaronson, and Reggie Cannon.

Of course, playing so many young players against a team of experienced CONCACAF veterans is a risk. But, this time around, it paid off. The team generally looked good, holding possession very well and almost completely stifling the Costa Rican side when they were in possession. While some of them stood out, none of the U-23 eligible players had a bad game. Indeed, I would say that the weakest performance came from their most capped player on the field, Paul Arriola, and even then, he was an important part of the build up that led to the penalty.

The one thing the team didn’t have was that final bit of polish. While the passing and organization was very good, the team had trouble generating chances. All too often, the ball would get stuck at someone’s feet, or the pass would be made too late, or the through ball would be hit a little too long. The team was able to get into the box and the final third, was able to get set pieces, but they weren't able to turn those into loads of shots on target. But that’s ok. January camp always looks a little rough. With how young so many of these players are, there’s plenty of time for them to develop that sharpness. It just wasn’t here on this day, but that doesn’t mean it won’t be here some day soon.

Ready the Cannon

Speaking of the penalty, we should probably touch on the player who actually won the darn thing. Reggie Cannon has been excellent since he came into the lineup during the knockout stages of the Gold Cup, and this game was no exception. Cannon repeatedly demonstrated positional awareness on defense, choosing the precise moments for when to tuck in to block a passing lane or cover a weakness. As a result, he repeatedly snuffed out dangerous situations before they really had a chance to develop. Because of Cannon, the Costa Rican left side was essentially muzzled for the entire game.

But Cannon wasn’t merely a solid defensive presence. He was also excellent going forward. Cannon repeatedly got into space and presented a wide option that helped the team relieve pressure while in possession. And Cannon also helped push the attacking momentum forward, repeatedly driving into the final third on the overlap. It wasn’t an accident that Cannon was the one who won the penalty. He had been making similar overlapping runs for the whole game. And it was good to see him get reward for it.

For my money, I thought Cannon was the Man of the Match in this game. And I know I’m not the only one.

It blows my mind that Reggie Cannon is still only 21. He’s basically an established pro with FC Dallas and a serious option for the USMNT as the starting right back. It feels like he’s been with the team for a very long time. Indeed, Berhalter talks about his leadership as if he’s one of the veterans. At this point, Cannon’s probably the most prominent name going on that Olympic qualifying roster.

My Name is Nobody

There’s a final name that I went to discuss from this game. Ulysses Llanez came into this squad and really stood out. The winger, who plays for Wolfsburg’s reserve team in the German fourth division, started the game and immediately stood out. He was smooth on the ball, and he combined very well with the left back, Sam Vines. He wasn’t afraid to take players on and beat them on the dribble. Like the rest of the squad, he didn't quite have that sharpness that we expect from the full national team, but at just 18, there’s a lot of promise that is readily apparent to see. Llanez wound up taking and scoring the penalty. You can’t say he didn’t deserve it.

That's all from me. As always, let me know what you thought in the comments down below.