It started in the Cashman Field parking lot hours before kickoff of the Las Vegas Lights FC’s inaugural game on Saturday night.
Palm trees wrapped in blue, yellow and pink-tinted lights illuminated the celebration, and the sizzle of carne asada on the griddle filled the silence between songs performed by the Mariachi bands.
Children booted velcro soccer balls into a giant inflatable dart board, with a stray ball occasionally whizzing by the hoards of people huddled around food trucks. The controlled madness was highlighted by a pair of baby llamas — Dolly and Dotty — tied to a palm tree outside Cashman Field’s front entrance.
That party atmosphere poured into the stadium, where the capacity crowd overflowed from their plastic seats, through the metal handrails and into the grassy hills where the 10,387 soccer-crazed fans danced, waived flags and chanted, "Ole, Ole, Ole Ole" into the night.
The Lights fell to 2-0 to the Montreal Impact of Major League Soccer. The match was scoreless at halftime before the Impact received goals from Michael Salazar and an own goal by the Lights in the second half.
“The fans were up here,” Lights’ coach Jose Luis Sanchez Sola said afterward, holding his hand high above his head. “But the team’s (performance) was down here,” he said, slamming his palm on the table.
It was the first of three exhibition matches against MLS teams. The Lights will take on the Vancouver Whitecaps FC on Feb. 17 and D.C. United Feb. 24 before the regular season home opener against their soon-to-be rivals, Reno 1868 FC, on March 24.
“It’s exciting for me. I started playing soccer in Las Vegas, so getting the opportunity to play in front of my hometown is exciting, especially with a sellout crowd,” said Lights’ midfielder Julian Portugal, who played soccer at UNLV. “When we huddled up before the game we looked up at the environment we were in, and it was motivating.”
Despite surrendering two goals and getting ejected from the match in the 69th minute with a red card, Lights’ goalie Ricardo Ferrino may already be a fan favorite.
The fiery goalkeeper aggressively strayed from his net regularly, even juking past opponents before finally booming the ball down the field. Following a save in the first half, Ferrino taunted Montreal with the finger-wag made famous by Dikembe Mutombo.
The 27-year-old made a few spectacular saves from his stomach after scrambling out of his net, but eventually his aggressiveness cost him. He blasted the ball off of his own defender and into the Lights’ net for an own goal. Minutes later, he wandered too far from his net and lost the ball, then grabbed the Impact player’s neck to prevent another goal, prompting his red card ejection.
But while Ferrino ignited the crowd, the real star of Saturday night was the crowd itself. Particularly the section behind the net, which led chants throughout the night, waived neon-colored flags and danced through blue and yellow smoke bombs during pregame announcements.
“There was an excitement,” Lights’ owner Brett Lashbrook said. “This was different. This is nothing against UNLV or the Golden Knights or the 51s, but this is a different fan experience. There was a different diversity to the crowd, there was a different price point to the crowd, and there was a different feeling to the crowd.”
Just months ago Lashbrook had a vision for professional soccer in Las Vegas. Saturday night he walked the concourse and watched it become a reality.
“I think we’ve just hit the tip of the iceberg,” Lashbrook said. “I saw 100 flags (in the stands) and by the end of the year it’s going to be 500 flags. I saw the singing, dancing and cheering behind the goal by two sections. By the end of the year it’s going to be seven sections.”
Not only were the fans dressed in the Lights’ blue and yellow, but Cashman field itself got a makeover. Natural grass covered what used to be a pitchers mound and base paths, and Lights banners were draped over the outfield walls. The nets that normally shield fans behind home plate from foul balls were gone, and soccer goals with team-colored checker designed nets backstopped each end of the field.
It wasn’t perfect, as the occasional 20-mile-per-hour gust would hurl a cloud of red dirt from the warning track onto the field, but all-in-all it looked like a soccer stadium.
“Any time you take an old stadium and put it to its maximum capacity there will always be some issues, but I love Cashman Field,” Lashbrook said. “Are there some things that we can fix? Absolutely. We have to make sure that we’re communicating the sellout properly to fans, Metro (police) and the LVCVA parking.”
The only thing missing was a goal for the home fans to celebrate, but the result on the field felt like an afterthought to what has to be considered a spectacular start for Lashbrook and the Lights.
He promises the atmosphere will only get crazier, and the llamas may even make an appearance on the field.
“Overall it’s an A-plus night,” Lashbrook said. “My biggest takeaway is to have a team that’s never played a game to get 10,000 people to show up and have a great time. Despite the score I don’t think anyone is going home tonight thinking it’s wasn’t a good time.”