By ALAN SNEL
The Las Vegas Lights pro soccer club made history Saturday night.
Yes, the United Soccer League team lost to a superior MLS Montreal Impact club, 2-0.
But opening night for the Las Vegas Lights FC’s three-game preseason here at Cashman Field was a sellout and there was a spirit and emotion to the downtown crowd of 10,387 that made Las Vegas feel like a big-time city thanks to the party-like atmosphere in the stadium normally used by a Triple A baseball team. The Lights play two more MLS teams in preseason games Feb. 17 and 24 before their regular season starts in March.
Owner Brett Lashbrook told LVSportsBiz.com that, “We’re selling SRO tickets as we speak,” a half-hour before the Lights’ inaugural game.
Here’s Lashbrook after the game:
Before the game, LVSportsBiz.com hung out with Lashbrook and witnessed fans constantly going up to the owner to congratulate him on the opening night. The stadium that is home to the Las Vegas 51s had no signs of baseball and the Lights’ blue and yellow signage and sponsor signs covered the outfield walls and the spiral walkway walls, too.
Even though the MLS team from north of the border defeated the Lights, the loss didn’t dampen the crowd. The night’s significance was bigger than a score: pro soccer has a home in downtown Las Vegas.
Lights player Julian Portugal, who played at UNLV, said he was impressed with the sellout crowd’s spirit and noted when the 11 players huddled before the start of the game, they told each other, “Look at the environment we’re in. It was motivating.”
A city came together for a Saturday night of soccer. And a stadium worker said he heard no fights or fan incidents over the radio all night long.
“This is a validation of the sport of soccer in Las Vegas,” Lashbrook said.
Lashbrook said he spent most of the time before the game “putting out fires.” (not literal ones.) He noted, “Anytime you have a new sport in a stadium, there will be things to work out.”
Chelis, the colorful coach of the expansion Lights, appeared glum after the preseason loss.
Lashbrook said retrofitting the ballpark for soccer took time. He noted workers spent Friday night using Velcro to attach the sponsor signs on the outfield fence.
Patrick Hughes, president of the Fremont Street Experience, told LVSportsBiz.com that the crowd flowing into the stadium was “galvanizing the city.” He shook Lashbrook’s hand and they shared laughs before the game.
And Hughes’ pal, Mathieu Laplante, who is a Montreal native, said it began with the Knights in October and now the Lights were making Las Vegas feel like a big-time city thanks to the pro sports element in the market.
“It feels like a city,” Laplante said.
Fans were renting giant blue and yellow flags on wooden poles for $20 and they can keep the flags for the two more preseason games and 17 home games that begin in March.
Mayor Carolyn Goodman sat with husband Oscar in the club level and soaked in the scene — a packed Cashman with fans of diverse backgrounds enjoying soccer on a Saturday night in downtown Las Vegas.
“It was five years in the making,” Mayor Goodman said. She led an attempt to get an MLS team with a subsidized soccer stadium at Symphony Park several years ago, but political opposition on the city council sandbagged the stadium proposal and MLS dropped Las Vegas from consideration when it expanded most recently.
Lashbrook worked with stadium concessionaire Centerplate to make sure authentic soccer foods were on hand for the hungry crowd.
Richard Ginzel, Centerplate’s vice president of operations at Cashman Field, and Paco Gomez, Centerplate GM along with Adam Cotkin, director of retail foods, worked with food trucks to create a tailgate atmosphere outside the stadium. A popular dish was tortas ahogadas — pork soaked in a broth of tomato sauce, oregano and cumin on a roll, Gomez said.
And inside the venue, there were tamale dishes and esquite, corn in a cream sauce in a plastic cup.
“It’s about soccer culture being born in Las Vegas,” Gomez said. “We want to craft an experience. We want a street feel” with the tail gate and food trucks, he noted.
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