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November 15, 2018

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Las Vegas Lights game one big party for fans

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Steve Marcus

Las Vegas Lights fans celebrate a goal during a game against the Swope Park Rangers of Kansas City at Cashman Field Saturday, March 31, 2018. The Lights won the game 2-1.

Lights Defeat Rangers 2-1

Las Vegas Lights goalkeeper Ricardo Ferrino reacts after  the Lights beat the Swope Park Rangers of Kansas City at Cashman Field Saturday, March 31, 2018. The Lights won the game 2-1. Launch slideshow »

While the Golden Knights were busy on Saturday night, clinching a Pacific Division title in their inaugural NHL season, another Las Vegas expansion team was thriving (albeit on a smaller scale) just a few miles away.

The city's minor-league soccer team, Las Vegas Lights FC, played its second home game of the season at Cashman Field and scored its first win, defeating Swope Park, 2-1.

Carlos Alvarez scored the Lights' first goal, driving a shot past Swope Park's goalkeeper off a throw-in ricochet in the 52nd minute to tie the score at 1-1. At the 71-minute mark, Swope Park mishandled a crosser and scored an own goal, giving the Lights the lead for good.

The results on the field were notable, but the bigger story might have been the situation in the stands. The attendance was announced at 7,888 fans, and while that's not quite the season-high 18,458 the Knights packed into T-Mobile Arena on Saturday, the intensity at Cashman seemed to exceed the actual attendance figure.

That's by design. Shortly after the franchise's inception, a push was made to court and develop passionate fans to support the team, and the local soccer community has embraced that effort. The supporters' section behind the Lights' goal was packed with hundreds of fans, and they weren't just there to watch.

In the finest tradition of soccer-loving countries, the Lights' supporters stood for the entire 90 minutes, waving a dozen flags, banging thundersticks and sounding off with vuvuzuelas for the duration. They started waves, ran through countless chants and generally made their presence felt.

The constant din gave a regular-season minor-league soccer match feel like an event.

Alvarez gave props to the fans after the game.

"The supporters are the main thing," Alvarez said. "You can say they're the 12th man. Obviously today they were big out there. You felt the 12th man on the field."

Season-ticket holder Joaquin Aztorga helped organize the supporters' section in the offseason, and he said Las Vegas' strong Mexican and Hispanic communities have already thrown their full endorsement behind the Lights.

"This is what we live," Aztorga said. "It's in our blood. We know what it is to bring that vibe, that atmosphere. I think little by little you'll see more people joining us here."

The Lights' home opener last weekend drew 9,109 people to Cashman Field. The team averaged 7,865 over three preseason matches, including 10,387 for the preseason opener.

Those are impressive numbers. For context, the UNLV men's basketball team drew just 6,753 fans to the Thomas & Mack Center for its final game of the season, a Mountain West tournament loss at the hands of rival UNR.

Can the Lights keep the momentum going and continue adding to its fan base? Winning would help, so the squad's 2-0-1 start is promising.

Aztorga expects the supporters' section to grow in numbers and intensity as the season goes on.

"It's getting there," he said. "In two [home] games we've proven to everybody we're here, we're here to support the Lights and the soccer community and that's what we do."

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.