Thursday, May 4, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Earlier this month, when Las Vegas Lights officials offered their players tickets for a home game, most asked for one or two. Some didn’t need any. Azriel Gonzalez, the soccer team’s star winger, requested 16.
The Lights returned to independent status for this season after spending two years affiliated with LAFC of Major League Soccer, meaning players are residing and training in Las Vegas instead of commuting in from Southern California for games.
MLS changed its affiliation model after the 2022 campaign by launching MLS Next Pro; 27 teams have their reserve players waiting in the wings in the new league.
“It’s a blank canvas to build the team how we want,” Lights coach Isidro Sanchez says. “I’m happy, because it looks like our team, and not [the lineup] LAFC decided.”
The Lights, who launched in 2018, are looking for their first playoff appearance. They posted an 0-1-4 record to open the United Soccer League season—all on the road, because Cashman Field was being used as a football stadium for the XFL’s Vegas Vipers.
The Lights played a U.S. Open Cup match in early April at UNLV. They hosted another U.S. Open Cup match April 29 at Cashman Field—after the Vipers season had concluded.
It was the 21-year-old’s first time playing locally since leaving the family’s home in east Las Vegas before high school to chase his professional aspirations. Motivated by relatives in the crowd, Gonzalez scored a pair of goals in a 4-0 U.S. Open Cup victory over the LA Force.
In his first start with the Lights, he scored on a direct kick in the 16th minute and added a second goal seven minutes later—a dazzling debut.
“When he asked for the tickets, I could see the motivation in his eyes,” coach Isidro Sanchez says. “Managing the desire was a big challenge, but he obtained what he was looking for in a great performance. He enjoyed it.”
The Lights went on to lose in the third round of the U.S. Open Cup tournament but put up a fight against MLS squad Real Salt Lake. Now, focus can fully shift to the Lights’ main campaign, the United Soccer League regular season, including a May 5 home opener against the Charleston Battery at Cashman Field.
May 5 vs. Charleston Battery, 7:30 p.m.
May 7 vs. San Antonio FC, 3 p.m.
May 13: vs. Tulsa FC, 7:30 p.m.
Tickets start at $20 at lasvegaslightsfc.com.
Much of the scoring onus will fall on Gonzalez, who says he’s motivated by the chance to play for a familiar crowd. A year ago, as a member of FC Edmonton in the Canadian Premier League, he had no ticket requests and no one to cheer him on. He couldn’t help but feel lonely. “It’s never easy being away from family for so long,” he says.
Gonzalez became a free agent after the season and sought a return to the United Soccer League, in which he had played for four seasons as a teenager with the Tacoma Defiance, then the affiliate of Major League Soccer’s Seattle Sounders.
The chance to join the hometown Lights was a natural fit. The team needed offensive help, and Gonzalez was drawn to the idea of coming home.
“With Azriel, everything he does is going vertical [up the field] and thinking how to score,” Sanchez says. “He’s dedicated to the attack.”
As a rising youth player in Las Vegas, many knew Gonzalez as an elite goal scorer who consistently put pressure on opposing defenses. Gonzalez remembers his first soccer game as a 4-year-old. “We won 9-0, and I had all nine goals,” he says.
That scoring ability earned him a spot with the Seattle Sounders FC Academy in 2015, when he was just 13 years old. Gonzalez made an immediate impact, posting 12 goals and six assists in 18 matches with the academy’s under-16 squad.
He wound up playing parts of four seasons with Tacoma looking to crack the Sounders’ roster. He’s still trying to catch the eye of an MLS team. “Being in MLS would be very, very special,” he says. “It’s something I am working towards. I’m just 21. That is still young.”
Gonzalez, one of three players with local ties on the Lights’ roster, is joined by Henderson native Alexander Romero and Anwar Ben Rhouma Torres, a senior at Green Valley High School.
“You want to have players from the community,” Sanchez says. “They give extra. They are committed to the culture. They were born and raised in Las Vegas and play for Las Vegas.”
Gonzalez says being in Las Vegas has even been better than he envisioned—and not just being reunited with family and friends. It’s also helping him develop as a player.
“Everyone wants to win [here],” he says. “Everyone is on the same page, and there is respect with all the players.”
This story appeared in Las Vegas Weekly.