Thomas Olsen stepped off the Cashman Field pitch after an early-season game and walked to a crowd of more than 30 cheering friends and family who had come to watch him play. That’s when the Las Vegas Lights’ 24-year-old goalie realized the magnitude of being a hometown star.
“I just took a moment,” he says. “I had a good game, and I felt good and just seeing them all was kind of a special moment for me. I’ve been blessed for the opportunity, because I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do something like this.”
Olsen might not have to leave his hometown to realize his dream of playing in the MLS after all. Next week, the Las Vegas City Council will consider a proposal to convert the site where Cashman Field sits into a mixed-use development with an MLS stadium. The MLS has stated its intention to expand from a 24- to a 30-team league in the next few years, with 29 slots already filled. In May, MLS Commissioner Don Garber said Las Vegas would merit consideration for expansion.
Las Vegas shaped Olsen long before he joined the Lights. He was born here, trained with the Las Vegas Premier club team and starred at Bishop Gorman High, where he won a state title as a senior. The Kellogg Zaher Sports Complex in Summerlin, which includes 11 soccer fields, is named after his cousin, Joe Zaher, who died in 2002. Olsen’s mother is a gaming executive, and his grandfather was an orthopedic surgeon at UNLV. “I don’t think it gets any more Las Vegas than that,” Olsen says. “That’s a good thing. That’s why it’s even more special to be playing here.”
Olsen left Las Vegas five years ago to play college soccer at the University of San Diego, starting in 70 games over four years before going in the third round of the Major League Soccer SuperDraft to the Colorado Rapids. When he didn’t make the team, he signed this past year to come home.
Now he’s playing for the Lights in the United Soccer League, with his sights set on ultimately reaching the MLS. “It’s obviously a great situation that if I can play USL and be at home, I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Olsen says. “I can develop here, I can live here, my family can come to the games, all this stuff. I’m pretty happy right now.”
The Lights are happy to have him, too. When the team began, owner Brett Lashbrook pledged to have at least one player with Las Vegas ties on the roster every year. Many applauded his efforts to bond with the community but assumed the local would be the last guy on the bench and only play in blowouts.
Upcoming home games
• June 8: Orange County SC
• June 15: New Mexico United
• June 29: Oklahoma City Energy
• July 4: Los Angeles Galaxy II
All games start at 7:30 p.m.
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Even Lashbrook didn’t expect to land a player as skilled as Olsen. “He is the epitome of what we were looking for when we did the homegrown-player initiative,” Lashbrook says. “He is the absolute perfect profile of the type of player that we’re looking for.”
Olsen has already recorded six shutouts in 12 games this year, helping the team to a record of 4-5-3 and putting it in the thick of the Western Conference standings.
“There’s a lot of quality in this country in the goalkeeping position,” Lights coach Eric Wynalda says. “He knows that, and he knows there’s a lot of pressure from the outside that if it isn’t good enough, that we will make a change, and we’ve never felt for one second that that was necessary.”
He’s also the most marketable player on the team and is highly active in the community. He hopes he can be a role model for local children. “It doesn’t hurt that he looks like a movie star, and he’s probably going to be the mayor someday,” Wynalda says. “My daughter is the perfect example of that. She’s 14 years old, and she came to watch the team and said, ‘Dad, who’s that?’ You realize that he does have maybe an X-factor there.”
Wynalda isn’t joking about Olsen becoming the mayor. The coach tells his goaltender that often, though Olsen usually laughs it off. Then again, he was a political science major at San Diego.
“You know what,” Olsen says, grinning, “I’m not going to say he’s wrong. Politics was never out of the picture, for sure. We’ll see.”
It would be no surprise to see someone as quintessentially Las Vegas as Olsen serving the city one day, but for now, he’ll do it in net for the Lights.
This story originally appeared in the Las Vegas Weekly.