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MLS keeps eye on Las Vegas

Thirty-five years ago, long before the graveyard of Las Vegas professional sports franchises began filling with failed efforts, the North American Soccer League attempted to make a go of it in Southern Nevada.

The team was called the Quicksilvers. They had an aging star from Portugal named Eusebio and played at no-frills Las Vegas Stadium. The team’s first match, on April 10, 1977, was against the New York Cosmos, who had an even bigger star, Pele, on their roster.

The Quicksilvers won 1-0 on a goal by Las Vegas’ Victor Arbelaez, and a crowd of 11,869 reportedly showed up. The Quicksilvers averaged only 7,092 fans that season before moving to San Diego for the 1978 season. By 1984, the league was out of business.

Fast forward to Sunday, where triple the crowd for that Quicksilvers-Cosmos game is expected to watch another Portuguese superstar – Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo – go head to head against another local soccer product – Las Vegas High’s Herculez Gomez of Club Santos Laguna – in the same place where Eusebio and Pele played, now known as Sam Boyd Stadium.

Organizers of the Real Madrid-Santos Laguna match, which is part of the nine-event World Football Challenge, believe the game is a referendum on whether Las Vegas is prepared to embrace professional soccer again – specifically as an expansion location for Major League Soccer. (The Las Vegas Legends of the Professional Arena Soccer League begin play this fall at Orleans Arena.)

The test will be steep, as organizers are charging World Cup prices for a “friendly” match – $71 for the least expensive seat, with the average ticket a hefty $146.

By comparison, the average ticket to an MLS game costs $41.35, with the cheapest set for most games $15.

Daren Libonati, whose Justice Entertainment Group is involved in promoting the event locally, said if fans support Sunday’s game despite the expensive tickets, it will show MLS officials that Las Vegas is a serious player.

“It can open the door to getting MLS, no question,” Libonati said. “If they see the fans are coming out for this, it will leave a positive impression on them when it comes time to expand.”

Charlie Stillitano, whose CAA Sports is staging the World Football Challenge, said of Las Vegas: “We’re looking for this to continue. Not just in the hopes of MLS having a team here someday, but in bringing more big events to Las Vegas. This is the home of the big event.”

Stillitano said the high prices are due to the cost of bringing Real Madrid out West and the small size of Sam Boyd Stadium.

“The reality is it’s not cheap to bring in Real Madrid,” Stillitano said. “That being said, we’re comfortable with the advance sales, and we’re hoping to sell it out Sunday.

“We’ve gone into cities where MLS used our events as a barometer of the interest in soccer and has followed by putting teams in those markets. MLS are partners with us in this series, and they’ll look at it to see what the community’s interest is.”

However, MLS president Mark Abbott isn’t so sure what happens at the turnstiles Sunday matters as far as Las Vegas getting a team.

“No one game determines whether a city is considered for expansion,” Abbott said. “We want it to sell out. We think it’s a great game. But if it comes up short of a sellout, that doesn’t mean Las Vegas is crossed off the list (for MLS expansion).”

MLS, in its 17th season, has 19 teams. It plans to expand into New York City for its 20th franchise. After that, it’s a matter of what markets have the fan base and facilities to make MLS a successful venture that would prompt the league to expand further.

“We’re looking for three things in considering a market,” Abbott said. “First, we’re looking for strong local ownership. Second, we’d want to see a demonstration of support for the sport and for a (MLS) team. Third, we look at the stadium.”

Abbott said with 2 million people in Southern Nevada, no competition from any of the four major sports leagues and an economy that is slowly recovering, the Las Vegas market is one MLS monitors closely.

“I think it’s a very intriguing market,” Abbott said. “It’s a very diverse community; it’s an international city.”

The most pressing concern is a facility. Abbott said the league is closely monitoring the various proposed stadium projects, including Chris Milam’s soccer stadium near the M Resort in Henderson and UNLV’s on-campus football stadium, which would have a roof and create a climate-controlled environment to deal with the summer heat.

“Right now, we don’t have a timetable for future expansion,” Abbott said. “But we are keeping our eye on what is happening in Las Vegas.”

They’ll be watching Sunday. So will the ghosts of the Quicksilvers.

Contact reporter Steve Carp at scarp@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2913. Follow him on Twitter: @stevecarprj.

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