Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2018 | 2 a.m.
Sebastian Hernandez grew up playing soccer in Las Vegas with dreams of making a lifestyle out of his passion.
He was named an All-American at Bonanza High School and starred on UNLV’s soccer team. So, last August when it was announced Las Vegas was getting the Las Vegas Lights FC professional team, it didn’t take him long to give them a call.
He showed up for an open tryout in December, and in a field of more than 500 players, he stood out. Monday, he and four other locals signed professional contracts to be part of the Lights’ preseason roster.
“It’s breathtaking,” Hernandez said. “It’s the most amazing thing. I wanted to get my foot in the door somewhere, whether it was in Europe, Asia or wherever, but it being here in my hometown makes it all the better.”
Hernandez has traveled the globe desperately searching for a start to his professional career. He wasn’t able to latch onto a squad following his UNLV career because of surgeries to repair the meniscus in his right knee and a sports hernia.
After recovering, he got tryouts with the Portland Timbers’ under-23 team, the New York Cosmos, and even traveled to France and Germany hoping to land a roster spot.
“It’s been hectic,” he said. “It didn’t work out, but I eventually came back here and it fell into plan.”
Hernandez still has friends from Bonanza and lives in a neighborhood close by. The Lights kick off their inaugural season on Feb. 10 at Cashman Field where he will have the opportunity to play professional soccer in front of his family and friends.
“This is definitely home for me,” Hernandez said. “When they announced the team I was excited. I obviously wanted to pursue my soccer career, but if I wasn’t I would have wanted to go to the games myself. Being part of the actual roster is wonderful.”
His story is much like the other four players who signed with the Lights on Monday. Team owner and CEO Brett Lashbrook pledged to have at least one local player on the roster at all times.
“We had the ability to do something completely different than any other team,” Lashbrook said. “As a fan I’ve always believed that when you go to a game for your hometown team, when that team has players that are represented by your town it makes it special. It makes it better and more important.”
Another signee was Julian Portugal, who graduated from Palo Verde and played four years at UNLV, including the team’s trip to the NCAA Tournament in 2014.
“The aspiration has always been to help these guys reach their potential,” UNLV soccer coach Rich Ryerson said. “Now they’ve taken it one step further and I couldn’t be prouder of both Sebastian and Julian for succeeding and carrying out their dream.”
Another Lights addition, Adolfo Guzman, helped lead SECTA to a Nevada state title in 2012. Palo Verde product Matt Thomas will also be on the Lights preseason roster.
“I feel motivated to play near my family, inspire others and work hard to get to the top in my hometown,” Guzman said.
The most heralded of the locals who signed on Monday, though, is Marco Cesar Jaime Jr., who was born in Las Vegas and moved to Mexico with his family when he was 6 years old.
Jaime signed with Mexican club Deportivo Toluca at age 15 and debuted in the top professional division at 20 years old. He was named to the Mexican national team’s preliminary pool roster for the 2015 Under-20 FIFA World Cup, and now returns to his hometown to play for the Lights.
“It’s an opportunity to have a better quality of life while still playing professionally,” Jaime said. “I have always wanted to come back. I want to establish myself and make people know my name.”
All five players have unique journeys in search of their place in professional soccer, but all are happy to be in Las Vegas to finally get a shot.
“Each player has his own story and they’ve all been looking different places,” Lights coach José Luis Sánchez Solá said. “The important thing is they are all coming back to their hometown and playing for their home city. They have the opportunity to showcase their skills in front of their people.”
Since the team’s inception, Lashbrook has preached it will be “for Las Vegas, by Las Vegas, of Las Vegas,” and the first signings in team history show he’s serious.
“These five young men will have a chance to make their professional dreams come true in a city they call home,” Lashbrook said. “During the coaching search there were some that were very candid that they weren’t on board with (always having a local player), and I knew they weren’t the right answer for us. When I explained it to (Solá), he told me something and I knew right away he was the perfect fit for us. He asked me ‘Why only one? Why can’t I have more than one?’”
The five locals will join about 20 other players who are expected to be announced soon for practice, which begin immediately. Lights FC will host MLS clubs Montreal Impact, Vancouver Whitecaps FC and D.C. United in exhibition games starting Feb. 10, and the regular season will follow.