Heerenveen's Llanez eager to return to the U.S. setup and aims for a busy 2021
October 26, 2020
FOR YOUNG PLAYERS, 2020 has been an extremely difficult year to develop. Transfer budgets are slashed and player movement has been limited. The stop-start-stop-start of the COVID shutdown and offseason has made it difficult for players to find rhythm and gain confidence and, finally, youth national teams have found it tougher to schedule games.
American winger Ulysses Llanez, 19, has certainly felt these effects. The year actually began on a positive note for Llanez who was invited to participate with the United States national team for January camp and his club, Wolfsburg, signed his release to allow him to attend.
The experience proved to be a positive one for Llanez who started in the camp’s concluding friendly against Costa Rica. He scored the game’s only goal when he converted a penalty which was drawn by Reggie Cannon. Afterward he was given the Man of the Match.
But then came challenges for Llanez. He was slated to be on the U.S. U-23 Olympic qualifying team in March but that tournament was postponed. Then the COVID shutdown closed leagues throughout Europe. He made the first team bench for Wolfsburg twice but was an unused sub each time. Then the club purchased more attacking players in the offseason, which limited the opportunities for Llanez and other players.
But in September, Llanez started trending upward again. He agreed to terms on a new deal at Wolfsburg and immediately went on a season-long loan to Heerenveen in the Eredivisie where he made his first-team professional debut.
“No one heard about a loan or anything like that until [Wolfsburg] brought in new players,” Llanez said of how the loan originated. “At first, [Heerenveen] didn't want to get a winger. But then they sold a winger, Chidera Ejuke to CSKA Moscow. That's when everything happened. I'm thankful for the opportunity because not everyone gets to go on a loan and go to a different first team and just get playing minutes.”
“When I first came to watch them play, it was it was way different from the Bundesliga,” Llanez continued. “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. I felt this was like a perfect league for me to develop, to get better, and hopefully just to become a better player.”
Llanez knows that Wolfsburg will be following his progress back in Germany and he is focusing on developing and adding more elements into his game.
The first will be transitioning to the faster level of first-team soccer. As part of this, he wants to increase the speed of his decision making.
“What am I going to do before I even get the ball or when I have the ball? That's what I needed help with the most when I was at Wolfsburg,” Llanez said. “Now that I'm here, I know my train of thought has to be faster. It has to be what am I going to do before I get the ball. I know this going to help me a lot when I go back. But at the moment I'm just focusing on this season and we'll just see where it goes.”
Getting on the field will be a challenge for Llanez, at least for the time being. Heerenveen’s strong start to the season has naturally made manager Johnny Jansen reluctant to make many changes to a starting lineup that is earning results. Through six games, Heerenveen has notched four wins and a draw while only suffering one loss - to Ajax.
Llanez made his professional debut in a 1-1 draw against Utrecht before the October international window. His second appearance came over the recent weekend when he entered into a 4-0 win over FC Emmen in the 88th minue. On Tuesday, he played the final 13 minutes of a 3-1 draw with Top OSS in the Dutch Cup.
His pro debut was a personal milestone after coming close while with Wolfsburg last season (“The only thing I was feeling was just like: wow, this is happening! Pro minutes, that's what I've been looking for the past six months or eight months.”)
“I'm pretty sure the team wants to finish at least top two of the league,” Llanez said. “That's one of the team goals I want to do. But for personal goals I want to be a regular starter here. I want to learn. I want to become a better player. So my goal is just to be a regular starter here and hopefully get some minutes when I go back to Wolfsburg.”
Off the field, Llanez is enjoying life in Holland. The adjustment has been made easier given that, unlike in Wolfsburg, most people speak English in Holland. He enjoys the city’s restaurants and is even ready to purchase a bike so he can being to explore more areas.
But in addition to Heerenveen and Wolfsburg, Llanez is also looking forward to the return of international soccer. As a dual national whose parents were from Mexico, Llanez has been in the U.S. setup for years. There have been reports in the past about Mexico being interested in trying to convince him to switch, but Llanez is enjoying his opportunities with the Stars and Stripes these days.
“Like I said before: whoever it gives me a great opportunity, that's where I'm going to go,” Llanez said. “But looks like the U.S. is giving me the perfect opportunity. That's why I'm continuing to grow and develop.”
What is particularly exciting for the Lynwood, California native is that he will potentially be part of three different U.S. teams in the months ahead – the 2021 U.S. U-20 team, the U.S. U-23 Olympic team in both 2021 and 2024, and the full national team. Thus far he has been in recent contact with national team boss Gregg Berhalter and U.S. U-20 head coach Anthony Hudson.
His experiences so far with the United States have been positive and the 2019 U-20 World Cup quarterfinal run (“with that group I figured let's just continue to make good teams. I feel like we could keep growing and become the best U.S. team in the 2022 World Cup or the 2026 World Cup”) in particular left him with the urge to get back to that type of stage again soon.
“I miss representing my country,” Llanez said. “It's always it's always an honor to represent them. I'm pretty sure everyone is like buzzing to see everyone play with each other. I'm ready to look forward it. If I get the chance to play with them or just even seeing them is just going to be a great opportunity. It's always going to be good to learn from the top players.”
“I think about everything,” he added. “I think about the U-20s. And I think about the U-23s and the Olympics, I think about qualifiers…I'm looking forward to the Gold Cup. If I don't get to the Gold Cup, I'm looking forward to the U-23 qualifiers. If that doesn't happen, I'm looking forward to the U-20 World Cup because I, I'm just looking forward to everything because in any of those competitions it's always a good opportunity for me to show what I can do for the team and show what I'm what I made of.”