Sam Morris/Las Vegas News Bureau
Thursday, May 17, 2018 | 2 a.m.
With a neon-colored soccer scarf draped over his gray suit jacket, Jose Luis Sanchez Sola starts to head off the field after the whistle indicates the first 45 minutes of play are over. But first, the Las Vegas Lights Football Club technical director, more commonly known as “Chelís,” commandeers a microphone to address the 8,167 fans in attendance at Cashman Field. In broken English and amongst cheers, Chelís shares a guarantee of more hard work from his team when it returns.
From the first minute of play—when the Lights took a 1-0 advantage over the Sacramento Republic on a header—through the halftime whistle, Chelís appeared emotional on the sideline, pacing back and forth in front of the bench, yelling at both his players and the officials and throwing his arms up in disgust.
Chelís later attributed his frustration to his team’s celebration of the early goal, a move he said tormented Sacramento’s psyche and perhaps motivated them the rest of the way to salvage a 1-1 draw.
The 59-year-old native of Puebla, Mexico, can’t help but show his passion for soccer. His unique personality is a big reason he has emerged as the face of the Lights in their inaugural United Soccer League season despite ceding head coaching duties to his son, Isidro Sanchez, after Chelís was promoted to technical director.
As much as his charisma endears him to fans and players, it has boiled over negatively in other areas. Chelís just finished serving a four-game suspension for “brief contact with an official” (he’ll return May 26 for a game against the Galaxy in LA).
The league deemed the incident “referee abuse,” though Chelís said he was just trying to point and never intended to touch the official. “It will not happen again,” he promised.
Chelís cries every time he takes the field on match days, he says. He references “angustia de quedar mal,” or “a sense of anguish in disappointing,” as a driving force. Win or lose, he prefers to disappear into solitude for several hours after a game.
His lexicon is colorful when talking about soccer. “We are all professionals, artists,” Chelís says when asked about his players. “They all know how to play soccer. We don’t have an accountant here, or a mechanic—they’re all soccer players. So what I try to do in my work is to create a canvas for them to showcase those great artistic traits they have.”
Juan Carlos Garcia connects with Chelís so much that the 33-year-old Lights forward followed him from Mexico to Las Vegas. Garcia has played under Chelís’ tutelage since he was 15, when Chelís took him in and housed him in Puebla as he climbed through the club ranks.
Leading young players is Chelís’ primary inspiration. “Being able to communicate with these fools, they understand ... what I have in here,” he says, pointing at his head, “I can put [that] in their heads.”
Garcia describes Chelís’ on-field demeanor as “strong,” but insists there’s a method to his madness. He channels his anger into effective coaching, according to Garcia. “He doesn’t get mad just to get mad,” Garcia says. “He lives the game differently. His passion for soccer, I think, is incomparable. Maybe Isidro gets close, but not just anyone has it.”
Chelís can be full of surprises. One of Garcia’s favorite memories of the man came in 2007, when Club Puebla was promoted to the top-tier Mexican league. During a massive, community-wide celebration at a club, Garcia saw Chelís in what he described as a rare state of complete tranquility.
“I turn around and see him in the middle of the revelers,” Garcia says. “He was wearing a white tunic as if he was going on a spiritual retreat.”
In 2010, Chelís made headlines with Puebla when his players arrived on the field in plastic skin-colored caps. Garcia was also a part of that tribute to the beloved, bald coach. “He’s a great person,” Garcia says. “He’s always looking for ways to help others, making sure his players and their families are comfortable.”
Chelís says he feels a greater responsibility, especially in a country like Mexico, to guide younger generations into healthier lifestyles. “If governments don’t foster sports, there will be more crime,” he says. “The delinquent youth will be led by crime bosses who give them the only opportunity to make a living.
“For the good people, there’s no opportunity. When you think like that, your head starts spinning differently. It’s so easy to fix social problems, man, so easy.”
Chelís feels a similar sense of social obligation to the fans. He plans to stay as animated as ever, to provide Lights crowds with an escape through soccer. “You give them a show that makes them forget that they owe an electric bill, that they have no job or their child is sick,” he says. “My obligation is to make them forget for two hours.”
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.