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Lights eager to face MLS opponent at Cashman Field

Lights coach Isidro Sanchez has philosophies which apply to both life and soccer. He knows which traits he wants to define his squad.

Most of the attributes Sanchez tries to instill are common — discipline, cooperation and decisive, intentional action. But ahead of one of the biggest matches in Lights history, the team’s most important quality will be its opportunism.

“It’s one shot,” Sanchez said, “either take it or don’t take it. We, the Las Vegas Lights, this new team, feel comfortable in that kind of environment with zero risk.”

That environment is a match against Major League Soccer club Real Salt Lake at Cashman Field at 7 p.m. Wednesday in the third round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, the premier knockout cup tournament in American soccer.

It’s the first time the Lights will play an MLS team in an official competition since the club played its first season in 2018. They advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open Cup after defeating the LA Force 4-0 in the second round April 5.

“It’s the most important game in the story of the Las Vegas Lights,” Sanchez said.

Cup soccer is one of the unique subsets of the greater sport, particularly in the United States. For teams like the Lights, who play in the United Soccer League Championship — the second tier of American soccer — the U.S. Open Cup is their only chance to play higher levels of competition outside of preseason games.

“This is the best way for players to maybe earn their way into MLS,” midfielder Jacob Bushue said.

The U.S. Open Cup is an in-season, single-elimination knockout tournament which includes teams from almost all levels of the United States soccer pyramid. A winner must be decided, so extra time or even a penalty shootout are possible. It’s essentially the equivalent of England’s FA Cup, Spain’s Copa del Rey or Italy’s Coppa Italia.

Recently, TV shows like “Ted Lasso” and documentaries including “Sunderland ‘Til I Die” and “Welcome to Wrexham” have helped introduce American audiences to soccer, and more intriguingly, the idea of promotion and relegation. In most leagues around the world, the worst teams are removed from the league at the end of the season and replaced by the best clubs in the division below.

Promotion and relegation allow teams to earn the chance to test themselves against clubs in higher divisions. The United States’ soccer pyramid doesn’t. The 29 teams in MLS stay there no matter their results, and occasionally the league expands to permanently include another team, leaving the U.S. Open Cup as the main way for lower division teams to challenge the established top tier.

Sanchez said he’s trying to emphasize the importance of this opportunity to his team. He said the Lights have nothing to lose and wants them to play with aggression — both with and without the ball. Sanchez said they’ll need continuous intensity and teamwork to have a chance against Real Salt Lake.

He also wants his team to focus on themselves. All the traits he believes to be important rely solely on the team playing for each other and playing under control, no matter the technical level of the opponent. Defender Zach Carroll agreed with Sanchez and said the team is excited for the challenge.

“We believe we’re just as skilled and just as hard working,” he said. “It’s just about going out and proving it.”

Carroll also hopes fans will come out to watch the game. Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup game will be the team’s first at Cashman Field this season. The Lights previously hosted the second-round match with the Force at UNLV’s Peter Johann Soccer Field. Carroll said the high quality opponent, newly-laid field and a good atmosphere would be a great way for the team to make its 2023 home debut.

“It’s a great showcase,” he said, “not only for us as players but for the club in general.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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