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UNLV men's soccer still kicking with pride


It was a sweaty day around the Fourth of July, and Rich Ryerson was sitting inside a fireworks stand at Westcliff Drive and Durango. He was there out of necessity. He said there was a U-Haul office in that parking lot, and a Sinclair filling station, and a minimart.

And that the Summerlin kids didn’t seem interested in purchasing bottle rockets on this particular sweaty day.

Rich Ryerson is the men’s soccer coach at UNLV.

Todd Yeagley is the men’s soccer coach at Indiana, which has won eight national championships. I asked Ryerson if he thought the Indiana coach ever spent a sweaty day in Bloomington working a fireworks stand. He said probably not.

The reason Rich Ryerson was sweating it out in the fireworks stand was a phone call he had received from one of the higher-ups in the UNLV administration who said he needed to raise $1 million in 24 hours, or the higher-ups probably were going to drop the men’s soccer program.

This would have been 2010, when UNLV’s cash flow had slowed to a trickle, when budgets were being slashed across the board, when glass was being broken in case of emergency.

This was the handwriting that Ryerson’s predecessor, Mario Sanchez, had seen on the wall, in big, bold letters cast in red ink. This explains why Sanchez now is at Louisville, where he makes more money as an assistant than he did as head coach at UNLV.

Ryerson called another of the higher-ups to ask about the $1 million in 24 hours thing. He was told it was more like $2 million in 48 hours.

Higher-ups tend to exaggerate these things, just to make you squirm. And so an $850,000 gift spread over five years from the Engelstad Family Foundation — Tim McGarry, a former Rebels soccer player and a local attorney and businessman, is married to the former Kris Engelstad — combined with supplemental money raised by selling fireworks and whatnot have kept men’s soccer off the chopping block.

“I was at the point where I was thinking about standing on the corner of Paradise and Tropicana with a sign that said ‘Save our program,’ ” Ryerson said, though “Will Corner Kick for Cash,” might have been more effective.

This is Ryerson’s fourth year as coach. He has been been hearing the athletic department is regaining its financial footing.

So he might not have to sell bottle rockets next year.

“It depends on what the new athletic director wants to do,” he said.

Uh-oh.

Unless Pele or Sir Alex Ferguson is named the new athletic director, I would continue to worry.

Men’s soccer is like a lot of nonrevenue sports at UNLV. It sort of runs in the background, like a computer program that gets minimized once football and basketball start.

This is a terrible thing to say, but the only way one of these nonrevenue teams usually gets noticed is when its bus goes off the side of the road.

Oh, every now and then, the golf team or maybe baseball will embark on a winning streak and attain a national ranking, and then maybe there will be a short story, or at least a mention in the briefs.

The men’s soccer team hasn’t gone on a winning streak since Ryerson took over, probably because most of the players in the program saw the same handwriting Sanchez saw and left for greener soccer pitches — 13 of the 23 players who were in the program bolted during the coaching transition. And also because the ones who replaced them were spending more time peddling bottle rockets than they were on set pieces.

But the team is better this year, 2-3 against mostly nationally ranked teams. Last week, midfielder Rodrigo Fuentes was named to the national team of the week, the first time somebody from UNLV had done that.

Sal Bernal, from Clark High, is another talent; two years ago, he was the conference newcomer of the year.

Ryerson, who still holds the UNLV record for career matches played (84), thinks the Rebels might be good enough to compete for the conference championship, like they did when he played and Barry Barto was coach.

Sometimes it’s not easy to put together a winning streak when you’re slicing and dicing 9.9 fully funded scholarships into enough little pieces to sustain a soccer side plus reserves. And when a sports program runs in the background during football and basketball season, people do not often hear about the good stories.

So you probably aren’t aware that Rich Ryerson’s roster features 16 first-generation college students, and that 13 hail from Nevada high schools — 11 are from Latino families — and that his team pretty much is a mirror image of the Las Vegas community.

These are the kids who are helping UNLV get its soccer mojo back. They’ll also sell you a gross of bottle rockets at a decent price.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.