Ulysses Llanez had just the right kick for the U.S. soccer men’s team in his international senior debut Saturday.
As fans wearing Kobe Bryant jerseys cheered from the stands in Carson, California, Llanez drilled a penalty kick in the 50th minute, leading the U.S. to a season-opening 1-0 win over Costa Rica in an international friendly at Dignity Health Sports Park.
Llanez, 18, one of several young players who made their debut Saturday, grew up in Lynwood, a south suburb of Los Angeles, and played on the LA Galaxy team in the U.S. Soccer Development Academy. After scoring his goal Saturday, he celebrated with teammates and then pretended as if he was hitting a jump shot in a basketball game in an obvious tribute to Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend who died in a helicopter crash with his daughter and seven other people last Sunday.
The U.S. wore warm-up jerseys during pre-game drills honoring Bryant.
Llanez, a forward, scored seven goals for the U.S. U-20 team in the 2018 CONCACAF U-20 Championship and is likely one of the key players for the U.S. U-23 squad in the upcoming qualifying tournament for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. The first Olympic qualifier for the U.S. will be against Costa Rica on a date still to be determined.
The penalty kick was set up when Reggie Cannon was brought down in the penalty box by a Costa Rican defender.
Saturday’s game was the season opener for the U.S. and featured seven players making their national team debuts.