At the conclusion of that camp, the USA defeated Costa Rica 1-0 and it was a productive camp. Reggie Cannon was probably the best player in the game, Mark McKenzie earned a deserved first cap, and Jesus Ferreira finally became eligible to play for the U.S. But one of the top stories from that day was the strong performance of winger Ulysses Llanez, who converted a penalty for the game’s only goal.
A native of Lynwood, California, Llanez has been emerging within U.S. Soccer for years. He was a standout with the Galaxy’s reserve team in USL and used that to secure a move to Wolfsburg after his 18th birthday in 2019. He was a key player for the U.S. U-20 team under Tab Ramos during the 2019 cycle and featured at the U-20 World Cup.
But the appearance for the senior team, in which Llanez’ started, helped set a tone that Gregg Berhalter respected Llanez’ talent given that Llanez had yet to even play first-team minutes at any level.
When Llanez returned to Wolfsburg after the January camp, he made the bench for a pair of Bundesliga matches during the remainder of the season but did not see the field. At the start of the 2020-21 season, it was decided a loan was necessary to get Llanez on the field.
Eventually, Wolfsburg came to terms with Heerenveen in the Eredivisie to take Llanez for the season. While it is not one of the elite clubs of the Netherlands, Heerenveen is still at the level where it expects to finish well inside the top half of the standings every season.
“When I first came to watch them play, it was it was way different from the Bundesliga,” Llanez said. “In the Eredivisie, players just attack. I feel like this is a perfect league for wingers and attackers to go. I remember watching the first game and the left winger had at least 10 1v1's in the first 30 minutes. So I felt this was like a perfect league for me to develop, to get better, and hopefully just to become a better player.”
On Oct. 2, just before the start of the international window, Llanez made his first-team professional debut when he came on in the 67th minute of a 1-1 draw with Utrecht. It was a tough environment for Llanez to make that much of an impact since Heerenveen was holding on for a road draw and was reduced to 10 players in the 83rd minute.
Llanez was happy to finally make his first appearance but that is just the first big step of many that he wants to take this season in the Eeredivisie. He wants to earn regular starts and he wants to help Heerenveen finish near the top of the standings, and perhaps qualify for Europe. “The only thing I was feeling was just like: wow, this is happening!” Llanez said of his debut.
“Pro minutes, that's what I've been looking for the past six months or eight months. Just getting the opportunity is a good moment. It was a difficult game for me because we were pinned back the whole time. Then the red card made everything even worse. It's a learning experience and hopefully I get more playing time in the next game coming up and we will see how everything goes.”
On Saturday, Heerenveen will host an FC Emmen team that should be in the mix for a relegation battle. This is the type of game in which Llanez could thrive and the type of game Heerenveen needs to win if it expects to meet its goals for the season.
On the international stage, Llanez has plenty of options with the United States. While he played for the 2019 U.S. U-20 team, he is eligible for 2021 U.S. U-20 World Cup team as well. He was slated to be on the U-23 Olympic qualifying team in March and could return to that team in 2021 while also being U-23 eligible in 2024.
Weekend Preview: American Soccer Now
Llanez remains interested in the U-20 and U-23 teams but is focused on the senior team. On Friday, U.S. Soccer announced that the men’s team will return to action on November 12 against Wales in Swansea. After a strong debut earlier in the year, Llanez hopes for another call-up to build off that performance.
But with many young American players impressing both domestically and at the highest levels abroad, the key for Llanez to remain with the full national team will be determined by the impact he makes at Heerenveen.
“I miss representing my country,” Llanez said. “It's always an honor to represent them. When the whole coronavirus happened, it sucked because I know everyone missed seeing everyone play. I'm sure everyone missed seeing Christian [Pulisic] play, Weston [McKennie], Tyler [Adams]. So I'm pretty sure everyone is like buzzing to see everyone play with each other. I'm ready to look forward to it. If I get the chance to play with them or just even seeing them is just going to be a great opportunity -- to learn from them and see what is different for me and them. It's always going to be good to learn from the top players.”