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USMNT beats Costa Rica 2-0, led by super-sub Sebastian Lletget

United States midfielder Will Trapp (6) battles for the ball against Costa Rica midfielder Ranaldo Araya (17) during the first half of an international friendly soccer match on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

SAN JOSE, Calif. — The field was soggy from overnight rain, but the announced 13,656 fans who braved the conditions at Avaya Stadium Saturday afternoon were treated to a scintillating second-half performance by the United States men’s soccer team. A pair of late goals secured the home team’s 2-0 victory over Costa Rica.

Sebastian Lletget, who entered the game as a second-half substitute, energized the U.S. and opened the scoring in the 80th minute. Lletget then assisted on the second goal, a breakaway by Paul Arriola in the 88th minute, to help put the match away and earn him the Man of the Match title.

The game-winning goal was Lletget’s second tally for the national team in seven appearances. His first goal came nearly two years ago in a 6-0 victory over Honduras at Avaya Stadium, during which the LA Galaxy midfielder left the game with a major foot injury. Saturday’s 2-0 win was his first competitive game back at the venue.

“I had goosebumps, but I had to put it in the back of my mind,” Lletget said. “Everything that happened last time I was in this stadium, to overcome a great injury that put me out for a long time, and getting back to where I am at now, it’s definitely overwhelming and emotional. But moving forward, I can’t wait to keep going.”

The U.S. defense posted its second consecutive clean sheet, following last weekend’s 3-0 victory against Panama. Aaron Long, who captained the team for both wins, was pleased with the way his back line took control of the game, especially in the second half, and wore down the opponent.

“We moved the ball a bit faster and we really opened up,” Long said. “We wanted the ball more, and it made them run. They got tired, and the game really opened up and suited what we were going for.”

It was also the second win in a row for new U.S. head coach Gregg Berhalter, and it capped off a solid month of training to open the 2019 national team campaign.

“It was a great experience today,” Berhalter said. “We are certainly learning that we can continue to persevere, we can continue to try to play our game and have a cumulative effect on the opponent. You saw that from Costa Rica. They got very fatigued in the second half and couldn’t match us. I like that mentality from our group.”

But the game will be remembered most for the inspirational performance of Lletget, who enters the Berhalter era for the men’s program filled with confidence that he can compete and be productive. He hopes to get many more call-ups to the national team in the months and years to come.

“Moving forward, I want to be part of this team, and I know what I can do on the field,” Lletget said. “It just took me so long to really get there and be fit. I am glad I am finally feeling 100 percent.”

Berhalter made two changes to his starting lineup from Sunday’s 3-0 win against Panama, introducing Wil Trapp for Michael Bradley and Arriola for Jeremy Ebobisse. Forward Gyasi Zardes was the senior member of the team, earning his 42nd appearance, more than twice the next most experienced player.

Costa Rica also featured a young squad under new head coach Gustavo Matosas, with the only two veterans on the field familiar Major League Soccer fans: Minnesota United defender Francisco Calvo, who captained the Ticos, and Portland Timbers midfielder David Guzman, who locked down the center of the formation.

The U.S. started brightly, using the width of the field to advance into the attacking third, but an inability to connect with the central attackers doomed chances to test the Costa Rican defense. The visitors responded with a more direct style that lead to multiple set piece opportunities, but none troubled goalkeeper Zack Steffen.

Disjointed play from both sides continued throughout the first half, and the teams entered the locker room at intermission scoreless.

The second half, started under sunny skies, was a completely different story for the USA. The team’s emphasis turned to pushing the ball up the field in a much more rapid fashion, and a goal looked certain to come. Hometown hero Nick Lima, whose San Jose Earthquakes call Avaya Stadium home, had the best opportunity, blistering a swerving shot from the edge of the area that caromed off the post in the 54th minute.

Costa Rica looked shaken, and the U.S. continued to press the Ticos at every opportunity. Lletget, a Bay Area native, entered the game in the 63rd minute and glanced a shot wide. Cristian Roldan tagged the post from the top of the box soon after, but the goal wouldn’t come.

The breakthrough finally came in the 80th minute, when Lletget sent a header across goal that eluded goalkeeper Esteban Alvarado and nestled into the back of the net. Trapp got the play started with a ball into open space for Jonathan Lewis to track down and turn back into the area. It was the first career national team assist for Lewis, who entered the game minutes earlier.

The U.S. doubled its lead in the 88th minute, when Arriola poked a ball past an onrushing Alvarado following a feed from Lletget. The Costa Ricans never recovered, and the game ended 2-0 in favor of the home side, Berhalter’s second win in as many games.

The U.S. men next play Ecuador on March 21 in Orlando, where they’ll look to continue their perfect start to 2019.

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