Las Vegas Lights FC goes its own way in Sin City
Eric Wynalda and Las Vegas Lights FC are running a job search unlike any other on the Strip at the moment.
Not that you would expect anything less from the United Soccer League team that partnered with a marijuana dispensary, dropped $5,000 from a helicopter as part of a halftime promotion and embraced gambling like no American sports franchise ever before.
Las Vegas has dubbed its upcoming open tryout as its search for the "most interesting player in the world." The 49-year-old Wynalda, who was hired as the Lights' coach and technical director in October, is bringing in some of his old friends from his high-profile playing career and promising a chance to make the Division II program regardless of experience level.
"There's a lot of talented people in Vegas," said Wynalda, a longtime star with the U.S. men's national team. "If you really think about some of the people that came there, maybe they were going to be a part of Cirque du Soleil, who knows, and they end up dealing cards or something.
"I just think it would be really fun and a really cool story if we found a literal diamond in the rough here, so we're going to roll with this."
Tryouts are nothing new in the United Soccer League, but Las Vegas is doing its best to put its own glossy spin on the Dec. 15 workout.
While welcoming everyone from acrobats to zookeepers, Wynalda is eschewing the more traditional grueling tryout in favor of a quick hook for anyone who doesn't have what it takes. Team owner Brett Lashbrook also says he is ready to put a woman on the roster if she is the best player at Cashman Field that day.
"Talent is everywhere, and we're looking everywhere for it," Lashbrook said.
It's a Vegas-style casting call right in line with Lashbrook's philosophy for the franchise.
Fighting for attention in an increasingly crowded market - the NHL broke into Sin City last year with the Vegas Golden Knights, and the NFL is coming soon with the Raiders - the Lights have been one of the most daring teams in sports since its debut in February.
They used a pair of Llamas, named Dotty and Dolly, as on-field mascots. They handed out $100 casino chips to players as a reward. They put a smiley emoji on the inside of their jerseys for use in goal celebrations.
"I think teams need to reflect their communities and when you think of Las Vegas you think fun, sexy, glitzy, glam, unabashedly kitschy," Lashbrook said in a phone interview.
The Lights' most lasting impression might be their incorporation of gambling into their game-day experience. The team provides real-time updates on the over-under and other betting options while encouraging its fans to wager on the game.
It's a common practice in other parts of the world that could become more prevalent in the United States after a Supreme Court ruling in May cleared the way for all 50 states to offer legal sports betting.
"This is the future," Lashbrook said. "The other big four sports leagues are all tip-toeing around it and it's just silly."
Lashbrook hopes to bring Las Vegas' flamboyant style to Major League Soccer one day, but it looks as if that might take a while. Cincinnati, Miami, and Nashville are set to join MLS in the next few years, and Austin, Texas, also has been promised a franchise.
Major League Soccer plans to expand to 28 teams, but St. Louis, Detroit and Sacramento, California, are believed to be the top contenders for that final slot in this wave of growth for the league. MLS spokesman Dan Courtemanche said expansion will once again be on the agenda for the Board of Governors meeting Dec. 13, and the league has not set a timeline for announcing future expansion teams.
"Regarding Las Vegas," Courtemanche wrote in an email, "we encourage fans to continue to support Las Vegas Lights FC to show their support for professional soccer."
Lashbrook has been through this process before, helping take Orlando City from the USL to MLS. He thinks everything will work out if Las Vegas becomes one of the top franchises in its current league.
"The world's most popular game and the world's most entertainment city, listen, there is a marriage there," said Lashbrook, who points to Baseball Hall of Famer and pioneering sports marketer Bill Veeck as one of his heroes.
Lashbrook likely needs solid plans for a soccer-only facility and increased attendance to capture the MLS' attention. The Lights had an average attendance of 7,226 in their first season, good enough for the upper echelon of the USL, but not enough to make a case for MLS.
While Lashbrook works on strengthening his young franchise, one of his biggest assets may be Wynalda, who was in the mix for the top job with the U.S. Soccer Federation before Carlos Cordeiro took over in February. Wynalda has lived in Las Vegas before, and felt it was a good time to return to the city.
"I was very keen on this specific opportunity, mainly because of the market that it is," he said. "There's a clearly going to be, especially with the Raiders coming to Vegas, you have the Knights now, it's becoming a sports town and soccer really has a very unique window of opportunity to join the sports movement in Vegas."
Jay Cohen can be reached at https://twitter.com/jcohenap
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