Las Vegas Lights rebuild quickly and face a familiar foe in LAFC in U.S. Open Cup

When Gian Neglia took over as sporting director of the Las Vegas Lights in February, it was a team in name only.

That’s not a figure of speech but a literal description of the situation Neglia inherited. The Lights, who played in the second-tier USL Championship, had no coach, no players and no employees on the soccer side when he joined the team less than two weeks before training camp was scheduled to start.

“We didn’t know where we were going to have training camp. So we needed to find a place, we needed to set up games,” Neglia said. “You really sit down and think about everything that we did and everything that needed to be done in the time frame that it needed to be done, you might think to yourself, well, maybe this isn’t the right move to make.”

He certainly wouldn’t have thought that three months later the Lights would be preparing for arguably the biggest match in team history, a U.S. Open Cup round of 32 match against LAFC on Wednesday in Las Vegas.

LAFC’s short-lived relationship with the Lights is one of the reasons the cupboard was empty when Neglia arrived. For two seasons the team was the MLS club’s affiliate in the second-tier USL Championship, with the players living and training in Los Angeles, then traveling to Las Vegas for home games.

Steve Cherundolo, who has taken LAFC to consecutive MLS Cup finals, got his U.S. managerial start there in 2021, and former and current LAFC players — including Danny Musovski, Christian Torres, Bryce Duke and Tomás Romero — played there. But the affiliation agreement, which was actually separate one-year deals, ended after the 2023 season, leaving the Lights to hire a new coaching staff and 25 new players.

That team won just three games last season, and in January, founding owner Brett Lashbrook sold the rights to the Lights to former baseball all-star José Bautista. Some assembly was required since the team once again had no coaches or players. But for Bautista, that made the investment more desirable.

“It’s somewhat of a rescue project,” he said in a video interview from his home office in Tampa, Fla. “You have to get your hands dirty. But I liked the fact that it was a project that you have to rebuild somewhat the organization from top to bottom.

“That allows you to put your own flavor and your own thoughts and your experiences in trying to build a new culture and reestablish a relationship between a fan base and an organization that has been deteriorating over the last four or five years.”

Bautista, who made more than $100 million before retiring in 2018, was looking for a place to spend some of that money, but the cost was too high in the four major sports leagues. However, the USL Championship and Las Vegas seemed like a good bet. Bautista is just the latest in a flood of athletes and entertainers who have decided soccer is a good investment, a list that includes Hollywood heavyweights Ryan Reynolds, Rob McElhenney, Natalie Portman, Will Ferrell, Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon and athletes Patrick Mahomes, Eli Manning, Kevin Durant, Naomi Osaka and Lindsey Vonn.

“I felt like the USL was the best place to be,” said Bautista, who declined to discuss the cost of buying the team. “All the heightened awareness that’s been happening in soccer in North America in the last few years — it just checked a lot of boxes. It’s just the right place and the right time. And then the opportunity came about with Vegas.”

Bautista concedes there’s much work to be done to win back a supporter base that has questioned ownership’s commitment in recent years. Winning will certainly help in that regard.

The Lights have never made the playoffs — or even finished with a winning record — in six previous seasons and are 3-6-0 after Saturday’s 2-1 loss to New Mexico United, leaving them ninth in the USL Championship’s 12-team Western Conference table. And though the team is second to last in the 24-team league in attendance, averaging less than 1,500 fans a game at Cashman Field, the aging former baseball stadium that is its home, the crowd for the LAFC game will be the largest of the season.

“I know there was some animosity with that relationship and the way that it ended. So from a fan perspective, there could potentially be that like ‘this would be a really good feeling to be able to beat these guys,’” Neglia said. “This is a great test to see where we are in our project, where we match up against quality opponents.

“This round of 32 in the U.S. Open Cup is the furthest this club has ever gone. So it’s an exciting opportunity when you have a chance to kind of David versus Goliath, beat this prestige club from MLS. It’s really a kind of cool coming of full circle event.”

Neglia, who was assistant sporting director at Venezia FC in Italy’s Serie B before coming to Las Vegas, took the job for the same reason Bautista bought the Lights: to be able to work with a blank canvas, building a team and a culture and a vision from scratch.

“You are now looking at a pool of players that is vastly different than the pool I was looking at there. And so you really have to rely on your instincts, on certain metrics and data that you have to use,” he said. “The margin of error is always slim, even in Venezia. You can’t really afford to make major mistakes.

“But here it’s even triple.”

That challenge was made even more difficult by the fact Neglia didn’t start in the job until Feb. 2, 36 days before the regular-season opener. By then, most USL-caliber players already had a place to play, so Neglia and coach Dennis Sanchez had to get creative. They got Valentin Noel, the MVP of last season’s MLS NextPro Cup, on a transfer from Austin FC while Gaoussou Samake joined the Lights after his contract option was declined by D.C. United. Solomon Asante, 34, a two-time league MVP, signed with Las Vegas after Indianapolis allowed him to leave as a free agent while Cuban exile goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena, who played with little distinction in the third tier in Mexico and the U.S., came to the Lights after being released by the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

“I think we did a really good job of being creative and getting some players in that are desirable players,” Neglia said. “But then, of course, there is a good part of the roster that were available free agents. You kind of have to adapt that mentality of misfit toys, right? Where can we get the best of the rest?”

It’s far too early to say how it all will end. But a win Wednesday against a two-time reigning MLS Western Conference champion would certainly be proof that the Lights’ new management is on the right path.

“I’ve been telling people we’re on Page One of a thousand-page book,” Neglia said. “Just playing in this game against this opponent is storybook, right? So if we can go out there and get a win, it would really put a cherry on top of what I think has been a pretty cool three months.”

You have read the latest installment of On Soccer with Kevin Baxter. The weekly column takes you behind the scenes and shines a spotlight on unique stories. Listen to Baxter on this week’s episode of the “Corner of the Galaxy” podcast.

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