Kobe Bryant's impact felt at SoCal USMNT friendly, from fans to players on the pitch

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Southern California native Ulysses Llanez earned his first cap and scored his first goal for the USMNT on Saturday, honoring Kobe Bryant in the process. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Southern California native Ulysses Llanez earned his first cap and scored his first goal for the USMNT on Saturday, honoring Kobe Bryant in the process. (Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES — Amid a sea of red, white and blue, two other colors notably stood out: purple and gold. 

The United States men’s national team beat Costa Rica 1-0 in a friendly Saturday at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California. Jogging onto the field for warmups, the USMNT donned the No. 24 on the back of their shirts in honor of Kobe Bryant, who died along with his daughter Gianna and seven others a week ago in a helicopter crash.

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During the 24th minute of the game, fans gave a standing ovation and chanted “KO-BE” as the American Outlaws fan section held up Los Angeles Lakers colors. 

Despite being a soccer game, it was hard to ignore the amount of basketball jerseys sprinkled around the audience. 

“He’s a guy that was tied very closely to soccer, a guy that represents competing at the ultimate level, and an inspiration to I think anyone who wants to be top in their sport,” USMNT head coach Gregg Berhalter said. “To lose someone like that this early, it is tough. It was nice that we paid tribute and the fans paid tribute — I know how much he means to this Los Angeles community.”

From the Philippines to California, the impact of Bryant’s death has been devastating. But here in L.A., Kobe wasn’t just a basketball legend. He was the epitome of a city often generalized by movie flashiness and ocean views. Look beyond the Hollywood sign and palm trees that line Beverly Hills, and you’ll discover a hard-working community always grinding for those victories.

“When times get tough, he just goes and tries to win,” said Mario Rivera, a fan from Lynwood, California, who was rocking Kobe's No. 10 Team USA jersey. “That means a lot to somebody that’s from an urban area because hope and resilience is everything to us.”

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Another Lynwood native, Ulysses Llanez, scored the lone goal in the victory. How it transpired couldn’t have been more perfect. 

When the United States was awarded a penalty five minutes into the second half, Llanez instantly ran to grab the ball. D.C. United’s Paul Arriola was expected to take the kick, except it was the kid’s time to shine.

The 18-year-old wasn’t going to be denied the moment in front of about 50 family members. After all, it was his national team debut in a stadium where he always dreamed of playing.

What if he had missed?

“I’ve been practicing PKs after training the whole month, I hardly doubt that,” Llanez said. 

It was a vintage Kobe response from the young prospect, who celebrated his goal by shooting a fadeaway jumper to honor the fallen icon

“After the game I gave my shirt to my mom, and she just started crying. It just brought so much joy into my life,” Llanez said. “I want to keep doing it.”

That determination was (and is) one of the key components of Bryant’s “Mamba Mentality.” It’s what willed him to barge into the NBA as a 17-year-old and earn respect. No. 8 transformed into No. 24, helped create a dynasty, helped break it up, and then went on to win two more championships.

For 20 years, he was must-watch TV. Yet it somehow seemed like Bryant’s second act was going to be even better. In retirement he won an Oscar, mentored the NBA’s next crop of stars and poured himself into fatherhood — including coaching Gianna.

“It’s our responsibility to do what we can to help the next generation reach their full potential, and that’s what we’re excited about doing,” Bryant said Jan. 15 at an event in Los Angeles. 

His life was tragically cut short 11 days after that. But his imprint will be felt in generations to come, and it transcended basketball into all of sports.

Just look at Llanez, and what happened at the USMNT match Saturday.

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