Lights FC midfielder Matt Thomas celebrates after scoring the first goal in club regular season history just a minute into the season opener in Fresno. Lights FC earned three points in the standings, defeating Fresno FC, 3-2. (Kiel Maddox / Fresno FC)
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FRESNO, Calif. - The club's promise all along was entertaining soccer.
Go figure, it was a born-and-raised Las Vegas product who gave his city its first regular season dose.
Palo Verde High School grad Matt Thomas earned a start in the club's first United Soccer League regular season match, and in the second minute started things off with a bang, scoring the first of three Lights FC goals en route to a 3-2 opening night victory on the road at Fresno FC.
The left-footed Thomas, one of six players with Las Vegas, scored on a booming strike from the left side off of a feed from Daigo Kobayashi early on, as Lights FC scored three straight goals before biting down and holding off its fellow expansion side hosts.
Thomas's goal was the fastest scored in USL history for an expansion club in its first match.
"I don't know, it was just a moment of bliss - I couldn't have written it any better," Thomas said. "I put my whole left foot behind it and just aimed far post ... I should have come up with a celebration beforehand, but I didn't know that was gonna happen."
"You remember, when we had an open Player Combine, we wanted to find players from Las Vegas," Lights FC technical director Chelís said. "And now the first goal ever for the Las Vegas Lights comes from a guy born in Las Vegas. I'm very, very happy, because this team is for Las Vegas, and Matt Thomas is of Las Vegas."
Lights FC was solid on both ends of the field in the first half, as the back line continuously stymied an aggressive Fresno FC attack, and goalkeeper Ricardo Ferriño made a handful of crucial saves. None was bigger than a leaping poke at a Juan Pablo Caffa free kick strike in the 37th minute.
After taking the 1-0 lead into the half, Lights FC was able to mount more attacks of its own out of the break, and grabbed a commanding lead in a cluster. First, Alex Mendoza drove home a strike at distance off of an assist from Carlos Alvarez in the 57th minute. That was followed by a Joel Huiqui header goal off of an Alvarez corner kick just six minutes later in the 63rd.
"Obviously, we work on set pieces, and (the result) is a plus to the coaching staff, a plus to the guys who executed it the right way," Alvarez said. "It felt really good. Every goal is a whole team goal. You saw the third goal, that was a center back becoming an offensive player."
Huiqui was a strong anchor for Lights FC all night, as the LigaMX and Mexican National Team veteran wore the captain's arm band for the first time in place of fellow LigaMX product Marcelo Alatorre, who traveled with the team but did not suit up. The 33-year-old Lights FC leader was withheld from action as a precaution while final clearance on his international transfer certificate is still pending.
Huiqui's veteran leadership was needed late, as Fresno mounted a furious rally and scored two goals in an 16-minute span, first with Jemal Johnson scoring in the 73rd, then Renato Bustamante scoring in the 89th, just ahead of 5 minutes stoppage time being added.
The visitors were able to hold, and now raise the stakes for next Saturday's in-state rivalry showdown with Reno FC 1868, who dropped its home opener earlier on Saturday to Swope Park Rangers, 4-3.
"Obviously it's the rival ... and I think this makes it even better for us to get into that game," Thomas said. "I think it's gonna be wild. I expect Cashman (Field) to be packed, they're gonna give us a great atmosphere, we're gonna show up with the fans behind us, and it's gonna be an unreal night for us next Saturday night."
Lights FC midfielder Carlos Alvarez goes for possession up high against Fresno FC in first half action of Las Vegas's 3-2 road win to open up USL regular season play (Kiel Maddox / Fresno FC)