The Las Vegas Lights begin their fourth United Soccer League season May 5 with a different—and likely better—on-the-field product.
The club has entered into a player-affiliation agreement with Los Angeles Football Club (LAFC), one of the top teams in Major League Soccer. That means Las Vegas’ lineup could feature players who have previously suited up for the big club and/or players on rehab assignments.
Imagine if Mexican star Carlos Vela, arguably the best player in MLS, made his way to Las Vegas for a few games. It could happen. Either way, the agreement should lead to a massive player upgrade and an improvement over last season’s 2-9-5 record in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season.
As for making the playoffs for the first time in Lights history, owner Brett Lashbrook says, “I absolutely believe so. I have believed that before and have been wrong, so I hate to say it. But partnering with LAFC, one of the premier MLS [clubs], is going to make a difference.”
Here are some other Lights updates heading into the 2021 campaign.
In the bubble
The Lights’ players are now living and training in LA with LAFC, which pays their salaries and housing expenses. The Lights’ ownership was previously shouldered with that duty.
Players and staff travel the day before a game, whether it’s in Las Vegas or on the road. In a typical season, players would also come to town for community events, but during the pandemic, they’ll remain within the LAFC bubble, games aside.
The two teams will train together, in case LAFC needs to populate its game-day roster with Lights players.
At the helm
Steve Cherundolo, who has playing and coaching experience in Bundesliga—the top league in Germany—enters his first season as Lights coach, the fifth in the franchise’s history.
He’s considered to have had one of the most successful European careers for an American player in 16 seasons with Germany’s Hannover 96. He also participated in multiple World Cups for the United States.
“We want to be a difficult team to play against,” Cherundolo says. “Our style will be brave. We want to play an attractive style and move the ball forward to win games.”
Return of fans
The Lights don’t play at home until June 5 against the Tacoma Defiance, but that could end up being an advantage. Local pandemic restrictions could be fully lifted June 1, allowing a capacity crowd at Cashman Field.
In 2019, Las Vegas averaged about 7,700 fans per game, and the organization expects a similar crowd this season. Even if the stadium stays at 80% capacity—the approved limit beginning May 1—it would allow for 8,000 fans per game.
Down a rival
Reno 1868 FC ceased operations after the 2020 season due to the economic hardships brought on by the pandemic. That squad was considered the Lights’ main rival, with the two annually playing for the Silver State trophy.
Reno was a playoff qualifier in each of its four seasons.
Lashbrook still proudly touts the Lights’ gameday experience as the best value in Las Vegas sports, with tickets starting at $10.
“We aren’t trying to out-Golden Knights the Golden Knights, or out-Raiders the Raiders,” he says. “But there is absolutely a niche in this community as we evolve into the sports and entertainment capital of the world for soccer at an affordable price point in the summer months.”
The entertainment isn’t limited to the soccer pitch. Dollie and Dottie, the official llamas of the franchise in partnership with Zappos, will again make appearances during player introductions.
The Lights’ most infamous promotion— the helicopter cash-drop, during which $5,000 in small bills gets dropped to the ground during halftime of a game—is also expected to make a comeback. This year, however, Lashbrook is eyeing a hot-air balloon to deliver the money after the FAA filed a complaint following the 2019 promotion.
“Everyone laughs. Everyone smiles. Everyone giggles. And it got us 52 seconds on SportsCenter,” Lashbrook says.
Another promotion in the works is a collaboration with the Raiders for the Lights to wear jerseys themed after the NFL team. They’ve employed a similar promotion with the Golden Knights in previous seasons.
The match promotion schedule will be released closer to the first home game.
Stars on the rise
Look for Cal Jennings to be one of the Lights’ most notable roster additions in 2021. The 23-year-old striker scored nine goals in 14 games with Memphis last year after being selected as the 17th overall pick in the 2020 MLS SuperDraft by Dallas.
The Lights’ goalkeeper will be Philip Ejimadu, who hails from Minneapolis and played at a highly touted youth academy in Brazil. Ejimadu’s father is Brazilian and his mother is Nigerian, providing him with eligibility to represent the United States, Brazil and Nigeria on the international level. The 21-year-old made three appearances with the U.S. under-20 team.
Due to the LAFC agreement, the Lights roster won’t feature a local player for the first time in franchise history, but two Las Vegans could eventually dress for the Lights on rehab stints. Defender Tristan Blackmon is a starter on the LAFC backline, and UNLV product Danny Musovski scored five goals in 16 games for LAFC last year.
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.