A reminder about Friday’s news conference confirming minor league soccer is headed to Las Vegas asked if I had “RSVP’d to the biggest event in pro soccer history.”
The collective leg of the local media was being pulled just outside the 18-yard box. So no penalty kick was awarded.
A quarter-century ago, such an audacious claim would have been totally legit.
It was late December, back in ’93, when the draw for the 1994 World Cup was at the Las Vegas Convention Center. As Frank Valli might have put it: Oh, what a night (and day) that was. A half-billion people tuned in to watch Robin Williams draw oversized ping-pong balls to determine the matchups.
“Look! The world’s largest Keno board,” the frenzied one exclaimed as the six groups of four teams were put up on a giant electronic display. President Clinton and Mario Andretti spoke via videotape, and as it was determined Germany would play Bolivia at Solider Field, Chicago, Stevie Wonder provided a live musical interlude.
So that seemed a little bigger than the minor league soccer announcement. And then 10 years later, they brought in Edson Arantes do Nasimento — aka The Great Pele — and honored him as only Las Vegas could: With a slot machine bearing his likeness.
A woman who spoke only Spanish or Portuguese was driven to tears just to be in the same convention hall with the Brazilian soccer legend. She asked me to touch the baby she was cradling on its forehead. Pele had hugged me after our chat, about 25 percent of which I understood, and she was hoping some of his humanity and humility would rub off via transference or whatever.
And that — in a weird but wonderful way — seemed pretty big, too.
Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval attended Friday’s festivities at Zappos corporate headquarters (nee: Las Vegas City Council chambers) downtown, because if chicks dig the long ball, then millennials really dig soccer. So that gave the proceedings an air of authenticity.
Not once was the United Soccer League referred to as minor league.
Instead, it was called “one of the most prominent Division II professional soccer leagues in the world,” with 30 markets in 20 U.S. states and two Canadian provinces.
Major league shadow
With the NHL’s Golden Knights about to drop the puck and the arrival of the NFL’s Raiders looming large and omnipotent, it is probably best not to mention domestic pro soccer as “minor league,” especially when the governor is present.
After the politicians and soccer dignitaries addressed an enthusiastic gathering, some of which blew air horns as if Cristiano Ronaldo himself was steaming down FC Barcelona’s defensive wing, Brett Lashbrook, founder of Las Vegas Soccer LLC, said a few (thousand) words (it seemed). He choked up upon mentioning his family, and how his loved ones had helped make his soccer dreams come true.
“We want to be the additive to the local soccer ecosystem,” Lashbrook said. That quote, combined with his sincerity, made him the Man of the Match in this observer’s humble opinion.
Lashbrook also said the unnamed team was looking forward to playing in Cashman Field. That’s probably because a toilet has yet to explode at field level and soil his soccer boots.
I was told Lashbrook would like to get together for coffee, to alleviate my concerns that minor league — er, Division II — domestic soccer will succeed here, and that the city ultimately will be awarded a Major League Soccer franchise. Being a staunch supporter of “The Beautiful Game,” as my newfound pal Pele called it, I hope he will be successful in changing my mind.
But if top tier domestic pro soccer has no future here, it once had a past beyond the short-lived Quicksilvers of the long-defunct North American Soccer League who lasted only one season.
People sometimes forget MLS actually came to fruition in Las Vegas.
The formation of the league was announced during a news conference two days before Robin Williams drew those ping-pong balls and the names of the soccer-playing nations went up on the world’s largest Keno board at the Convention Center.
It was late December, back in ’93.
Oh, what a night.
— Helen Yee (@HelenYeeSports) August 11, 2017
Contact Ron Kantowski at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.
At the turnstiles
The average attendance at United Soccer League games in 2016 was 3,439. These were the top five and bottom five USL franchises by average attendance:
— FC Cincinnati 17,296
— Sacramento Republic FC 11,514
— Louisville City FC 7,218
— San Antonio FC 6,170
— OKC Energy FC 4,950
— Toronto FC II 1,026
— Orange County Blues FC 1,010
— Orlando City B 958
— * New York Red Bulls II 589
— FC Montreal 243
* USL Cup champions