For a country so large the USA should boast all sorts of soccer talents, and the head coach of the United States Men’s National Team should have an abundance of riches to choose from. But despite having one of the biggest player pools in the world, there aren’t many in it like Ulysses Llanez.
Llanez is the latest in our series on USMNT Rising Stars which ties in with the International Champions Cup Futures competition, which provides a springboard for some of the best young talents in world soccer.
At 17, Llanez is reaching an important stage in his career. Though he is yet to make his senior debut, he is widely considered to be one of the best players among a highly rated group born in 2001. Here we take a look at why he's regarded as such.
Who is Ulysses Llanez?
Having been called up by Mexico's under-16s at the beginning of 2017, there may have been a time when Llanez was considered a Mexican rising star rather than a US one.
Luckily for the US, he has since chosen to represent them at youth level and was part of the side which defeated Mexico in the final of the 2018 CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in Florida where he was one of the standout players.
Born in Lynwood, California, he is one of a number of highly rated prospects with Mexican heritage to have come through LA Galaxy's Academy in recent years, along with Alex Méndez who now plays for Freiburg as well as the USA youth teams, and Efraín Álvarez who grabbed an assist on his debut for the Galaxy in their 2019 MLS opener last weekend, but currently represents Mexico.
Having moved through the youth ranks for his club and at international level, Llanez appeared for LA Galaxy II in the United Soccer League and is ready to make the next step to first team football.
There isn’t much publicly available data for youth players such as Llanez, but using WyScout we can look at his output during the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship in 2018.
He finished that tournament with seven goals, just one behind the top scorer for the USA, Alex Méndez, and was named as one of three forwards in the team of the tournament.
Llanez's average xG in these games was an impressive 0.82, and he also emerged with 5.63 shots on target per 90 minutes.
He added four assists with an xA of 0.52 per 90, also contributing 3.32 key passes per 90 minutes and ten in total for the tournament.
Add to this 11.91 dribbles per 90, 3.97 fouls suffered, 8.6 touches in the box, and we see a player who likes to make things happen in attacking areas and one who spells trouble for his opponents.
His dribbling stat is high which could be because he was brought on as a substitute in each of his three outings and attempted to make up for this limited game time by making as many contributions as he could in the time he was on the pitch.
He is not really a defensive player, but he also added 2.98 interceptions per 90 for good measure.
Llanez's touch at times is brilliant, and he can be among the best you’ll see at his age group when it comes to controlling a ball. If he can make this action a regular occurrence, it will serve him well.
Able to switch play from either wing, as well as run directly at his marker, Llanez has the weapons in his locker to place uncertainty in the minds opposing defenders.
This switch of play becomes good crossing ability once he’s in the final third, and a number of his assists in the under-20 tournament last year came from such plays. Llanez has a good picture in his head of the field and his team-mates, and uses this to pick through-balls from out wide, and can do the same if he finds himself in the middle of the park.
Although right-footed, Llanez isn’t scared of playing crosses with his left – another trait which can worry defenders as they don’t know whether he will cut inside or run to the byline to cross.
He has a good shot with his right and will have a go from outside the area, especially after dribbling in from the left. He has a trick in his locker to beat a man, too, and also has some of the traits of an old-fashioned winger as he draws the opponent in before knocking the ball around them or through their legs.
"Uly always had individual, one vs. one capabilities that made him different from everyone else. He's a game-changer and he's fearless," said LA Galaxy II coach Mike Munoz.
"He doesn't care if he's taking on MLS guys, USL guys. When he gets the ball there's only one thing on his mind: he wants to beat you."
Positionally he could play wide in any formation, whether 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, or 3-4-3. There is also the possibility he could do a job as a support striker, or maybe even the most attacking player, though his strengths may be better used out wide, running at the opposition as well as in behind them.
Defensively he has the ability to tackle and intercept, although he may need some coaching to help him decide when to do it. This might also help him develop the determination to keep going when things may not go his way, with or without the ball.
Physically he stands at 1.7m (5ft 7in), but is sturdy enough, especially for his size and age, to not be dominated physically by his opponents.
International - USMNT
We've already covered Llanez's time with the USA at the CONCACAF Under-20 Championships in the stats section. He was one of the standout players at that tournament, and looks set to play at this summer’s Under-20 FIFA World Cup in Poland.
From there he will hope to start making an impression on Gregg Berhalter and the senior men’s national team, but this is only likely to come once he turns 18 and begins playing senior football for his club.
Llanez will be an attractive prospect for Berhalter and future USMNT head coaches; his skill set and position may give them something they don’t have. There is some latin flair in his play, and a low centre of gravity which makes him a danger in attack from the flanks.
The likes of Christian Pulisic, Jonathan Lewis, and a few others may provide options out wide, but Llanez could offer something different if he continues to improve and adapts well to senior football.
Llanez will now be looking for first-team football, and a good performance at the upcoming Under-20 World Cup could spark some interest.
The only thing which matters to fans of the USMNT is he's chosen to play for them at international level, rather than Mexico, which also pleased USA Under-20 head coach Tab Ramos, who described him as an "elite player".
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