(L-R) Matt Thomas, Julian Portugal, Sebastian Hernandez, Marco Cesar Jaime Jr. and Adolfo Guzman are 5 of the 6 Las Vegas local players on Lights FC's 23-man regular season roster. (Idris Erba / Lights FC)
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It’s a story almost too perfect to be made up, and one that perfectly encapsulates Las Vegas Lights Football Club’s dedicated search for local talent to populate its inaugural roster.
You have to rewind back to December, when more than 500 hopefuls took part in the club’s unique Open Player Combine over the course of one weekend at Kellogg-Zaher Soccer Complex.
One of those players, who Technical Director Chelís and his staff hadn’t heard of before, was Matt Thomas, who graduated from Palo Verde High School before embarking on a collegiate career.
There was a wild similarity between what the Lights FC staff saw from Thomas in his first game at the Open Player Combine and what he did last Saturday – making history with a 2nd-minute goal, which was the fastest scored in USL history by an expansion club in its first match.
It was a powerful, left-footed strike from distance that the staff had seen before. Several times.
“We saw him in the first game at the tryouts, he scored three goals on the exact same play,” Head Coach Isidro Sánchez said. “Chelís called me over and said ‘come see this guy.’”
From an open tryout, to the club’s invite-only training camp, to the preseason roster, to starting the first regular season match, to making history.
“I started off in a camp with 500 kids, so to make it here, training with these guys, is big,” Thomas said. “Every day, I’m trying to fight for more, fight for a starting spot and reach higher goals.
“It was always in the back of my head that it was a dream come true to turn pro, and it’s just wild that it happens to be happening in my hometown, where my family and where I grew up playing as a kid.”
In fulfilling a cornerstone piece of the Lights Local Promise, which ensures at least one roster spot each season to a player with Las Vegas roots, Chelís and staff were on a mission from the start to find local talent, hoping to find just that – one.
“Now, we have six, and I say to you easily that any of those six can compete for a starting position,” Isidro Sánchez said. “It’s difficult to find local talent in any city, but here we have found that this local talent has a lot of desire. For the coaches, it’s always easier to coach, to teach and convince a player with desire.”
Starting the season on the Lights FC official roster are:
“I’ve been saying: Vegas soccer players are very underrated - There’s a lot of talent here that’s untapped,” said Portugal. “I knew from the get-go from at (the Open Player Combine) that Chelís wasn’t going to pick just one player. I was thinking more like 10.”
The six who have made it this far have brought all kinds of new pride to their families and local communities.
Alvarez said he has “30-to-50” friends and/or family members. Guzman recalled his mom being brought to tears on the phone when he told her he’d made the club’s final regular season roster. Thomas spoke of the “blown up” phone he came back to in his locker last Saturday in Fresno.
Finding multiple local talents and creating moments like that for Vegas-bred players is something the club will aim to do every year moving forward. And it looks like finding more than one each year might not be that difficult.
“It just shows you there’s a lot of talent here that goes unnoticed,” Portugal said. “Even in the local Seven-vs.-Seven leagues, there are a lot of really good players who just need the chance to shine.”
Lights FC goalkeeper Angel Alvarez (in pink) is beginning his professional career just over a mile from where he starred at Rancho High School. (L.E. Baskow / Lights FC)