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Lights begin season with new coach, entirely new roster

Isidro Sanchez said he learned a valuable lesson in his first stint as coach of the Las Vegas Lights in their inaugural season in 2018.

Sanchez said he realized the long grind of the United Soccer League season isn’t “a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Sanchez returns as coach for this season, and he’s emphasizing that message after the organization endured a lot of changes in the offseason.

“We need to be very patient and respect the time,” Sanchez said. “It’s a 10-month season with a new team. So we need to set clear goals, clear values, and then to keep working on that.”

The Lights open the 2023 season at 5 p.m. Sunday against Rio Grande Valley FC in Edinburg, Texas. Last season, the Lights finished 13-14-7 and missed the playoffs by one point.

Sanchez was called late last year about the chance to return as coach. When he accepted the job, he inherited a team with no players after the Lights’ partnership with Los Angeles FC ended when MLS severed ties with the USL.

Sanchez said he’s kept a positive outlook during all the challenges he faced in the offseason and viewed it as a chance to create his own culture.

“It was a very challenging project because we had no players,” Sanchez said. “So we had to build everything, but what that means is you have the opportunity to build whatever you want.”

During the six-week training camp, Sanchez said he’s been satisfied with the progress the team has made. Part of the culture he is looking to implement is to have a team that shares the same hunger to succeed in what is another opportunity for him and most of the players at this level.

“There’s a lot of players that want to prove a point,” said defenseman Lucas Stauffer who was a 2018 first-round draft pick in the MLS Super Draft. “We’re a group of guys that are together, hungry and intense.”

Stauffer said training camp has been a lot of “learning on the fly,” but he said Sanchez and his staff have done a good job of integrating everyone and getting a group of 25 new players on the same page.

Throughout practice, Sanchez has stressed intensity and competitiveness. With an entirely new group, Sanchez said that those values have to be the base for the Lights’ foundation.

“(Sanchez) always preaches hard work and intensity,” defender Alejandro Mitrano said. “We’re going to have to keep the intensity up game by game for 90 minutes. That’s what’s going to put us apart from the other teams.”

A challenge the Lights will have to face early in the season is playing their first six games on the road. With the XFL’s Vegas Vipers playing at Cashman Field with a football field setup, the Lights do not play their first home game until May 5.

“It’s going to be hard,” Stauffer said. “This is not an easy league, so we might as well go ahead and test ourselves. After six games, we’ll really see where we’re at.”

Despite the obstacles in the Lights’ way, Sanchez said winning remains a priority. Sanchez said making the playoffs would be difficult, but he is hopeful that the hunger the team shares can lead the Lights to success and possibly the franchise’s first playoff appearance.

“Being the underdog, nobody believes in us. That could be our biggest strength,” Sanchez said. “It’s very dangerous to compete against someone that has nothing to lose. Playing the first games on the road is an excellent opportunity to show what we are made of.”

Contact Alex Wright at awright@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlexWright1028 on Twitter.

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