Thursday, March 7, 2019 | 2 a.m.
First-year Las Vegas Lights coach Eric Wynalda doesn’t hide his confidence when discussing his team. It opens the United Soccer League season March 9 against the visiting Austin Bold FC, and Wynalda expects better results in the franchise’s second season.
• When: March 9, 7:30 p.m.
• Where: Cashman Field
• Opponent: Austin Bold FC
• Tickets: $15-$55
This past year, the Lights finished third-to-last place among 17 teams. The former national team star took over shortly after the season ended and immediately began overhauling the roster. “If we don’t win the whole damn thing, I will be disappointed,” Wynalda said. “It’s my job to build this puzzle and make it work. This is a damn good team.”
If that’s not enough, here are more reasons why you should care about the Lights in 2019.
Cashman Field (almost) belongs to the Lights.
The Lights will become the sole tenants of Cashman Field sometime this summer, which will allow them to put the final touches on transforming the Downtown venue into a vibrant setting for their over-the-top game day experience.
The full conversion to soccer stadium won’t occur until the longtime Triple-A baseball tenants, now known as the Las Vegas Aviators, complete a move to their new stadium in Summerlin, but that’s imminent. The Aviators planned to be out by the start of the season but could push back the timetable if construction at the new park is delayed.
They’re still the primary tenants of Cashman for now, and that means the Lights’ corporate offices consist of some fold-out tables in a conference room under the stadium, with other signs of baseball—foul poles, for instance—still noticeably visible.
But the Lights have already taken over the locker rooms, painting them the team’s fluorescent colors of pink, yellow and light blue, and signs around the stadium have already been updated for the new tenants.
You can’t beat the price. Season tickets start at $200 for the 17-game home schedule. For eight matches, it’s $100. Single-game tickets cost as little as $15.
Recent exhibitions have been encouraging. The Lights delivered on Wynalda’s projections with a pair of positive preseason results against Major League Soccer squads—a 5-1 victory against Toronto FC and a 2-2 draw against the Colorado Rapids. The Rapids used a similar lineup a few days later and defeated the LA Galaxy, which is expected to compete for the MLS Cup.
The promotions are wacky. The Lights are labeling this season’s promotions as “bigger, better and more outlandish.” And, yes, those llamas from the Zappos sponsorship are again part of the pregame festivities. An even wilder plan will feature a confetti machine the team says is the world’s largest, a device that made its debut in the preseason victory against Toronto. With each Las Vegas goal, masses of confetti flew onto the field.
By the end of the game, the confetti cannon had run dry, and the pitch was completely covered. Other promotions include the return of the “Helicopter Drop,”—in which $5,000 in small bills (and $5,000 in prizes) is dropped onto the field at halftime for select fans to collect against one another—and a 3D fireworks night on the Fourth of July, when fans will receive 3D glasses to watch the postgame fireworks display.
Also, the March 30 game will feature a Salute to the Vegas Golden Knights, with the Lights wearing kits designed to mimic the NHL team’s uniform.
They’re young and quick. There are just five holdovers from last year’s team, which is by design. The 2018 squad featured many players at the end of their career. They looked a step slow, as if they didn’t have the stamina of the younger players in the league—a key factor behind the Lights’ rough 8-19-7 record. “They signed a bunch of guys from Mexico who were pretty much over it. They were on the way out,” Wynalda said of last year’s roster. “We are going to surprise some people. We have guys who have been waiting for this opportunity to prove themselves.”
Two breakout players to keep an eye on are strikers Tabort Etaka Preston and Edwin Rivas. The 20-year-old Preston played for Cameroon in the Africa Cup of Nations, and his quickness stood out. The 27-year-old Rivas was recently called up to the Guatemala national team.
They have local connections. Owner Brett Lashbrook has traveled to various social clubs and community partners to promote his team’s brand. He’s extremely proud to proclaim the Lights as the only pro sports team in Las Vegas to guarantee a roster spot to a local player. This year’s team has three Vegas high school products—goalies Thomas Olsen (Bishop Gorman) and Angel Alvarez (Rancho), and midfielder Matt Thomas (Palo Verde).
Olsen made his debut late last season, drawing many supporters to Cashman Field. “There was a huge cluster of people,” Olsen said, pointing to the spot in the bleachers where his supporters gathered. “I told them that would happen when you put me in,” he added, laughing. Olsen is expected to be the starter this season, backed up by Alvarez. Thomas was fifth on the Lights in goals scored last season with three.
They have impact players. In 2017, forward Irvin Parra became the first USL player to record at least 10 goals and 10 assists in a single season, accomplishing the feat in 30 matches with Seattle and Orange County SC. Striker Cristhian Hernández, who scored the game-tying goal against Colorado, has experience with the Philadelphia Union. Defender Javan Torre was a standout at UCLA and played in the U-20 FIFA World Cup for the United States. “A lot of guys are capable of playing at a higher level,” said Torre, who is expected to stabilize a Lights’ backfield that frequently surrendered three or four goals per game last season. “The [league] you are playing in doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of playing somewhere else. Just because you are in the USL, doesn’t mean you aren’t capable of being in MLS.”
They’re fan friendly. So much so that Wynalda has opened all practices. Fans don’t have to hold season tickets or sponsor the team to attend, and Wynalda clearly isn’t worried about opponents spying on workouts to get an edge. The team posts the practice schedule online.
They could be bound for Major League Soccer. Lashbrook isn’t bashful about stating his goal of eventually graduating the Lights to the top U.S. soccer league. He helped orchestrate such a move as chief operating officer for Orlando City, which went from the minors to MLS in 2015. But first, the Lights must become winners. Other USL-to-MLS teams such as Cincinnati and Atlanta had been minor-league powers. “The best way to get on the MLS radar is to prove ourselves,” Lashbrook said in the fall.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.