While fireworks pierced the Saturday night sky over Cashman Field, Phoenix Rising coach Rick Schantz chose piercing words as he stood outside his team’s locker room.
“The league needs to do a serious evaluation of this organization,” Schantz said. “The way they treat the game is embarrassing.”
It’s easy to dismiss those words as sour grapes. After all, Rising had just come off a 2-1 loss to hosts Las Vegas Lights.
The problem is that Schantz was right.
Make no mistake, Lights cannot take the blame for what was a lackluster performance on the field from Phoenix. They should, however, take all of the blame for a variety of other incidents throughout Saturday night.
This isn’t new. Almost all trips to see Las Vegas Lights leave you questioning why Circus Circus isn’t onboard as a sponsor, rather than just an apt description. This is a club whose owner, Brett Lashbrook, bragged to SoccerBible about the time one of their llamas relieved itself on the field of play before kickoff.
Saturday was different, though.
We can talk about the field conditions. The pitch was visibly not level and lacking grass in places. That led Rising to request that the match officials look it over before the game took place.
We can talk about the beds set up within yards of the field, which Schantz singled out for criticism last season.
“From a league-wide perspective, they should be concerned about the safety,” he said, almost foreshadowing Manuel Madrid crashing into one this past weekend in a manner that left him requiring treatment.
We can talk about the way that the hosts used their public address system to push their own brand of entertainment. Music was blaring with the ball in play. Distracting noises were made at least once when a shot on goal was launched. Contentious refereeing decisions were supposedly brought to us by Terrible’s gas stations — a sponsorship deal that puts most referee criticism fines to shame.
We can talk about how Lights’ in-game host spoke about Arturo Rodriguez in the first half.
“Someone’s gotta control her,” he announced to the crowd. “She’s out of control.”
Rising’s coach later labeled those comments as “degrading” and “disrespectful.”
We can talk about the fact that, despite Lights staff admitting that the host had been spoken to about those comments, he continued on the mic through the rest of the match.
We can talk about the chaos at the final whistle. With a mass confrontation on the field about to erupt surrounding the referees, home fans came streaming on. Instead of doing anything beyond a few announcements asking them to return to the stands, Lights shut off the lighting to proceed with their planned fireworks display. The only thing that could be seen easily with the naked eye was a handful of police officers running onto the field, flashlights in hand.
All of this is sitting firmly in the way of what we should really be talking about: Rising’s poor performance in a match that should have been a straightforward win.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised. With every game, Vegas pushes the boundaries further and further. Nothing ever changes in the opposite direction.
So that begs the question: What exactly is the league doing? When Vegas breaks rules, fines have been issued. The fact that they continue to flout those rules shows that the league’s actions are ineffective. At this stage, why even bother having rules in place?
The United Soccer League has continued to professionalize its product over recent years. Between the Championship, League One and League Two, the men’s lower league game feels in a better place than any other point in recent memory. Gone are the most extreme of the daft nicknames. Gone are the flaming soccer balls.
Lights’ actions only threaten that improving image. They continue to show that the game itself simply doesn’t matter to them.
We’ve become accustomed to the usual rebuttals by now. There’s a claim that actually, this is what Vegas is all about. There’s the talk that this is how Lights attempt to stay relevant in their market.
The issue with that is that the game does matter to other clubs in this league. It matters to the fans, to the players and to the coaches who make their living pursuing trophies.
Their goal when they come to Cashman Field is to pick up three points. It shouldn’t be to get through 90 minutes without injuring themselves on a pitchside bed. It shouldn’t be to find your way off the field in complete darkness as fans stream onto the pitch.
When Vegas does what Vegas does, it spoils the experience of every other team in the Championship.
It’s possible this discussion will fade into irrelevance soon. With Don Garber vocally eyeing up Vegas as the site for a new MLS team, perhaps Lights will fade into being just another footnote in the history of lower division American soccer. The fact that Lights’ leadership appears to have nothing to do with the proposed new club is nothing but a positive.
Or perhaps a desperate Lights club, facing possible extinction, will double down on its antics. Perhaps the craziness will ramp up as one last dying screech before the club is lowered into its grave.
Regardless, what Saturday reminded us is that if Las Vegas Lights can do it, they probably will.
If they only have to pay a fine, who cares?
If it affects the integrity of the match, is that really important?
Until USL actually takes a stand in enforcing standards, this will keep happening. While we wait for that moment, fans and players wanting to see a true match of football are the ones missing out.