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Playing short-handed on a hot and (rare) humid night in Downtown Las Vegas, Lights FC delivered one of its most satisfying performances of the 2018 season.
Behind strong play from the back line and the second goal in as many matches from fast-rising attacker Raul Mendiola, Lights FC earned a 1-0 shutout victory over Saint Louis FC in front of 6,651 fans at Cashman Field - Its third consecutive home victory.
It was the perfect launching point for the club as it heads into a stretch of four consecutive - and crucial - road matches to fill out the July schedule.
"Every one of these three straight home wins have been different - For me, the one that was the most special was this one," Lights FC Head Coach Isidro Sánchez said. "On Saturday, from 8-10 p.m., it's just a reflection of the work in the week. Today, it's about putting practice and all the hard work that fans don't see out there, and that's what happened."
With the victory, Lights FC (5-6-5, 20 points) pulled within five points of the Top 8 in the USL's Western Conference table - the cutoff point for a playoff berth in October. It also drew to within two points of three clubs tied for the spot ahead of them, including Saint Louis FC (5-6-7, 22 points).
In the first half, most of Lights FC's highlights were of the defensive variety - A welcomed site as the club was playing with limited numbers available on its back line. With Joel Huiqui, Miguel Garduño and Christian Torres all nursing lower body injuries, plus Marco Cesar Jaime Jr. suspended for the match due to yellow card accumulation, veteran Marcelo Alatorre anchored a young group.
Alatorre had a couple of key defensive clearances in the first 45 minutes, while the biggest defensive highlight was made by Nico Samayoa, who made his first start of the season for Lights FC. Late in the half, with Saint Louis FC bearing down on a one-on-one scoring chance against goalkeeper Ricardo Ferriño, Samayoa crashed in with speed and force from the right side, hitting the deck to stymie the chance before a shot could be fired.
It was aided by steady play in the net from Ferriño, whose big highlight in the scoreless first half was a daring punch to clear a chance off of a Saint Louis free kick, with the clearance finished with a flashy Freddy Adu bicycle kick.
The biggest offensive highlight of the night was the one that made the difference and earned Lights FC the much-needed three points on the Western Conference table.
In the 49th minute, Samayoa - Known as an offensive-minded defender - sent a 50-yard line drive of a pass down the center of the pitch, which found a patch of grass just in front of a streaking Raul Mendiola. Lights FC's hottest current attacker collected, and sent a ball to the far side past an extended challenge from Saint Louis keeper Tomas Gomez.
It was Mendiola's second goal in as many matches for the club, as the former LA Galaxy midfielder has become one of the team's most dangerous attackers after signing with the club in late May.
"I was trying to find Sammy (Ochoa), but Sammy come across a little too much and let it go, and Raul found that space," Samayoa said. "That's what he does very well. He had his chance and he finished."
Added Mendiola: "I have to be aware all the time, wherever the ball is at. Even if it's not to me, I have to be prepared. (The coaches) explained to me what St. Louis's weakness is, and that's what we capitalized on."
It proved to be all of the offense that Lights FC needed, as the defensive trio of Alatorre, Samayoa and Juan Herrera-Perla held tight to the finish line, earning its second shutout victory of the season. The unit held Saint Louis FC to just three total shots on the night, resulting in Ferriño's second clean sheet of 2018.
Lights FC won't get a chance to go for its fourth consecutive home victory at the Cashman Field confines until Saturday, August 4, when Rio Grande Valley FC Toros rolls into town.
But chances to continue to earn points and build into the Western Conference's Top 8 will be aplenty on the road the rest of this month. It starts with two key match-ups this upcoming week in the midwest.
First, Lights FC will take on OKC Energy FC (5-10-3, 18 points) on Wednesday night at 5:30 p.m. PT in a nationally televised affair on ESPNews. That will be followed by a 5:30 p.m. PT date Saturday night at Rio Grande Valley FC Toros (1-6-10, 13 points).
Lights FC is next back at home on Saturday, August 4, at 8 p.m. in a return match with Rio Grande Valley, with tickets currently available and starting at $15 at LightsFC.com.
Despite the strong vibes in the locker room after the win, accompanied by smiling faces across the board, the mantra come Sunday will be simple, with more must-win matches away from home directly on the horizon.
"I think it's a challenge for us - We're up for it," Mendiola said. "We will take it game by game, get back to work tomorrow."
Lights FC players celebrate a second half goal by Raul Mendiola (far right) during a 1-0 victory over Saint Louis FC at Cashman Field on Saturday, July 7, 2018. (L.E. Baskow / Lights FC)