Monday, Aug. 6, 2012 | midnight
- Sunday’s soccer game part of big weekend for Las Vegas’ Gomez family
- Before they come to Vegas, Real Madrid players square off in Euro semifinals
- Mexican champ Santos Laguna will replace Juventus FC in Las Vegas game against Real Madrid
- Real Madrid will play a game in Las Vegas against Juventus FC in August
- All Sports Coverage
The superstar put on a show. The game-winning goal was one you won’t see very often. And an announced crowd of 29,152 saw a soccer game between two of the world’s best teams played at a highly competitive level.
Sunday night’s soccer game between Real Madrid and Santos Laguna at Sam Boyd Stadium was never going to make or break the sport in Las Vegas. But it’s fair to call the event a success, and that keeps the argument about the sport’s relevance and future in this town alive for the time being.
When the game was first announced in May, it seemed almost too good to be true. Real Madrid, the biggest club in the world, in the middle of the desert for an exhibition in the dead of summer? Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the best player in the world and a ticket-seller everywhere he goes, headlining the biggest game the city has ever seen?
That’s what Justice Entertainment Group President Daren Libonati promised. And after a change in the opponent — Santos replaced Serie A champs Juventus FC in June — that’s what he delivered in Sunday night’s 2-1 Real Madrid victory.
From the moment Ronaldo was on the pitch — which was real grass, per Madrid’s request — all eyes were on him. He got the biggest cheers during introductions and brought the crowd to its feet every time he touched the ball or made a run at Santos’ net.
There were some fears that Ronaldo might pull out with an injury at the last minute. Instead, he played the full first half and was involved in several of Madrid’s attempts at the goal.
When he did bow out at halftime, his replacement was Kaka, who would be the most famous and best player on just about any other team in the world. Up and down Madrid’s roster were the world’s best players, and instead of walking to victory as it did against the Los Angeles Galaxy on Thursday, Madrid met a combative Santos squad that challenged every ball.
Las Vegas High School grad Herculez Gomez was involved in most of the altercations for Santos and was the embodiment of his coach’s proclamation about the falsehood of a so-called “friendly” match.
“Nowadays there’s no friendly games,” Santos coach Benjamin Galindo said.
Madrid went ahead in the 14th minute on a Xabi Alonso goal from about 35 yards out. Santos’ Cristian Suarez evened the match in the 25th minute. The final tally came late in the game when a Santos save ricocheted off Madrid’s Sami Khedira’s face and into the back of the net.
None of those exact plays really matter, though. Somebody was always going to win, somebody was going to lose and both teams were going to move on unaffected by the result.
What did matter was that the level of play match the expectation of the soccer-starved diehards and also interest casual fans. And as far as that goes, the crowd seemed to get its money’s worth.
In addition to the goals, there were three yellow cards, including Gomez’s for “persistent infringement,” that represent just a fraction of the physical play that dominated much of the second half. It was exciting, with back-and-forth action and precise passing giving fans plenty to remember and discuss with their friends.
Is it sustainable? That’s the next question for Las Vegas, a town that knows how to support big events much better than it does a string of them that would come with, say, a Major League Soccer team in town.
Much more likely in the near future are more one-off games like Sunday’s, which was part of the World Football Challenge. A game in next year’s event should be similarly well-received. Same goes for an exhibition between two MLS squads, so long as it involves a star like David Beckham or Thierry Henry.
The match certainly had its quirks. For example, the field was several yards more narrow than regulation size, the corner flags were posted in orange traffic cones and the first goal slipped through the net, which had to be repaired mid-game. And after it was over, security had little control over the dozen or so fans who sprinted on to the field either for autographs or just to see what would happen.
But those aren’t systemic problems and they're not enough to quell the optimism. Despite a high ticket price — a family of four likely couldn’t attend for less than $300 — people showed up and cheered throughout the game. They were excited just to have this game, and it delivered.
No matter what happens with soccer in Las Vegas from here on out, that’s enough to call this night a success.