A Las Vegas native, Thomas Olsen has embraced his role with Lights FC that has seen him take the reins as the club's starting goalkeeper this season. | Photo courtesy Las Vegas Lights FC
LAS VEGAS – As one of the few holdovers from the club’s first season, Las Vegas Lights FC goalkeeper Thomas Olsen can certainly speak to the changes that have arrived with Head Coach Eric Wynalda at Cashman Field.
“It’s been a lot,” Olsen said this week. “The coaches in general are different guys, come from different backgrounds, and definitely a different style of playing. I think we’re also a lot younger this year than we were last year.
“For me personally, I’ve really been given the reigns to make my impact on the field and in the community. It’s been a lot more outreach, really getting out there – so it’s been better for me for sure.”
As a native of Las Vegas, Olsen has also seen the changes that have arrived in the city’s soccer community over the years. While there has been plenty of talent to come out of Las Vegas in the past, former United States international Herculez Gomez being the most prominent, the overall soccer scene is now starting to draw a bigger spotlight in the national picture. Current Rangers defender Matt Polster, as well as recent Seattle Sounders FC signing Danny Leyva, Phoenix Rising FC loanee Tristan Blackmon, Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC’s Christian Volesky and Saint Louis FC’s Joaquin Rivas all grew up in the Las Vegas area.
With Lights FC’s arrival there’s also now a visible professional side for the region’s young players, something that Olsen certainly didn’t have when he was coming through the ranks.
“I thought the best thing the Lights did all of last year really doing a good job with marketing and getting the team, the name and everything out public,” said Olsen. “People are well aware of the team, it’s had great support so far and that only helps with players wanting to play. I’ve talked to a bunch of young kids who say, ‘Oh, I want to play for the Lights one day, what can we do, how do we get there?’
“I wish that when I was 8, 9 or 10 there was opportunity like that to understand the professional level, so I think it can only help. They are doing great so far.”
According to Olsen, Wynalda has taken a hands-on approach to forming ties with clubs around the city, inviting local youth coaches to the club’s first training session among other initiatives. As tied to Las Vegas as the club’s image has been, that should bode well in the future as more players look to follow in Olsen’s footsteps.
Now 24 years old, Olsen is four years removed from being part of the United States squad that competed at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand. One of two backups to current United States Men’s National Team goalkeeper Zack Steffen on that squad alongside current Memphis 901 FC loanee Jeff Caldwell, the experience of that cycle and tournament – especially competing against the hosts in front of a pack stadium in Auckland during the group stage – is one that has endured.
“I remember going into the field, it was the first time I played or been a part of a team that played in front of that kind of a crowd,” said Olsen, who at the time was competing for the University of San Diego. “We were sitting there listening to the national anthem in front of all these people. I think just thinking back it was one of those moment you have where you are just kind of like, wow, it’s a whole different world here. You are proud, it was a big moment for me for sure. My parents were in the stands too in that game, we also ended up playing really well, we won 3-0 and put on a show in front of all those people, so that was kind of the biggest memory.”
Olsen still stays in touch with teammates like Steffen from that tournament, which saw the United States reach the Quarterfinals before falling to eventual winner Serbia in a penalty shootout. Last week he was reunited with current San Antonio FC loanee Bradford Jamieson IV, who found the net against his former national team colleague, something Olsen says he gave him a hard time over. Next week when Lights FC heads to face Rio Grande Valley FC, another member of that squad in Conor Donovan will likely be in the lineup for the Toros.
Photo courtesy Darren Abate / San Antonio FC
The next edition of the FIFA U-20 World Cup arrives next month in Poland, and Olsen has already gone up against one of the goalkeepers that could be part of Tab Ramos’ squad in Real Monarchs SLC’s David Ochoa. Also in the picture is Tacoma Defiance’s Trey Muse, who could be in the opposite goal this Saturday as Lights FC returns home to Cashman Field.
Olsen’s advice to them, and to all the players who earn a place on the final 21-man squad, is to make sure they embrace the moment.
“Obviously, you’ve got to work hard and represent your country, but enjoy it man, because not many people get that opportunity, right?” said Olsen. “You’ve got to enjoy that, because that’s the moment you should be really proud that you got there. Enjoy it and work hard, because everyone here supports U.S soccer, everyone wants to it do well, and don’t be scared of the moment. Go out there and perform and the rest will take care of itself.”
Lights FC will be looking to get back in the win column against Tacoma on Saturday after a slower start to the season than it had hoped for, but Olsen is optimistic that the side is growing well as Wynalda works to build up players to enter games in a positive mindset. There will almost certainly be plenty of the extended Olsen family in the stands, too, and whatever the result they’ll have a good postgame meal in downtown Las Vegas – Olsen recommends Carson Kitchen or Esther’s Kitchen if you’re in town.
And in the big picture, being able to play a role in building a successful club on the field and showing the pathway for others to follow is Olsen’s biggest source of pride as a son of the entertainment capital of the world.
“I’m the hometown guy, right? I see a lot of familiar faces in the crowds and after the game a lot of the people come out to me, and I really have that hometown kid vibe,” said Olsen. “I appreciate that because it’s something that I’ve been looking forward to my whole life. I never knew that Vegas would get a team. I think representing your city, that’s the city that’s built you, and you are trying to give back, I think that’s the biggest thing.”