An Oral History Of The 2021-22 Las Vegas Lights

Cherundolo Duran Las Vegas Lights 2021

On Wednesday, LAFC begins play in the 2024 U.S. Open Cup with a road match against the Las Vegas Lights, the USL side that served as LAFC’s second team in 2021 and 2022 (before MLS NEXT Pro began). A handful of current LAFC players played for those two Lights teams, which trained in L.A. then bussed five hours to Vegas for “home games,” led by a new coach who was brought in from Germany. Those two years under Steve Cherundolo, and current LAFC assistant Enrique Duran, produced a few wins and a multitude of stories.

ENRIQUE DURAN (Las Vegas Lights asst. coach 2021, head coach 2022, current LAFC asst. coach):Look, this is a story that you can explain 100 times and people can say, “wow,” but they will never understand it.

LAFC.COM: How did it begin?

DURAN: Four years ago, we started to discuss options to build a second team that was going to help the academy and also help the first team. That is when the opportunity popped up with the Lights. They were looking for a partner that could help them with the soccer side while they controlled the admin side … After that, man, things moved really fast.

STEVE CHERUNDOLO (LAFC head coach): [from a 2021 Q&A with] It was a few years in the making. A couple of years ago I was in the LA area and I've always been in touch with old friends and teammates. Bob Bradley was my coach with the U.S. National Team for a long time and John Thorrington is somebody who I've known for a very long time because of his time in Germany and the US Youth National team – so, I've always kept in touch. Ever since then, John and I have had conversations and I've always kept in him in the loop about what I'm doing and where I wanted to go with my career. Then a couple of weeks [later], he called back and said ‘hey listen there might be something happening, would you have any interest’?

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ERIK DUEÑAS (LAFC midfielder): I remember there were a few of us players who were told that if you didn’t get enough minutes with the first team then you were going to play for the Las Vegas Lights. I thought it was a great opportunity for us as youngsters to develop and keep growing as players.

DIEGO ROSALES (LAFC defender): It was my first time ever hearing of him [Cherundolo], when he came in. Over the season I got to know him more and more.

DURAN: I remember receiving a call from [LAFC GM & Co-President] John Thorrington about Steve being selected as the head coach. We were still involved in this COVID crazy situation. [John] said, Steve would like to meet with you about being his assistant coach. I remember meeting in the parking lot with Steve. It was a really good connection from day one. But it was kind of chaotic because we met in a parking lot [because of COVID]. And after that we met on the balcony because we were not allowed in the office.

ABRAHAM ROMERO (LAFC goalkeeper): It was a roller coaster. That’s the first thing that comes to mind, all we had to overcome – travel and long trips, away matches every weekend, and still having to find it in us to perform every week.

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LAFC.COM: Is there a humorous travel story that comes to mind?

DURAN: Look, we don't have enough time to tell all of them. Every game was an away game. One night, after the game, everyone was expecting to be back at home at 3:00 a.m. and the bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. We left Vegas and an hour later the bus broke down and we were by ourselves. All of us just – throwing stones in the desert.

ROSALES: It was pitch black, standing in the desert by the side of the road for an hour, nothing around us. Everyone went outside. I think it was around midnight. We were just out there talking. It was very random.

DURAN: Another day on our way to Vegas, we had the same situation and we stopped. I cannot remember the name but it's that alien village that is on your way to Vegas [Baker, Calif.]. Oh, my goodness. All of us were just buying, like, the little toys. Every trip something was happening.

NATHAN ORDAZ (LAFC forward): Eventually the bus trips became routine. Some guys would watch a movie, some would talk. Guys sleeping.

DURAN: Again, it was during COVID time, we were not allowed to do a lot of stuff. The league was not allowing us to have dinners [in restaurants], the league was forcing us just to be in the hotel. And that created a situation where we spent a lot of time together. It helped us create chemistry within the group.

LAFC.COM: What were the biggest challenges?

DURAN: One of the toughest parts was not knowing which players were going to be playing. It was Thursday night, we didn't know who was traveling…because [some guys] needed to train with the first team … It was not a normal situation. It was completely unique. Playing away, every single game, it was tough.

06032022 Enrique Duran Las Vegas Lights

LAFC.COM: Where did you stay in Vegas? What was the lodging?

DURAN: Both seasons we were in – it was not like a regular hotel, it was more like some kind of apartments that were booked for us for the entire season. It was called Club de Soleil. I remember that place with some love but when we were going there it was – well, you could find the most interesting people around. I remember that a few of us used to play tennis and we would wake up early just because it was very hot during the day. We were maybe waking up at seven, and we had a neighbor that used just to walk out of his house with his gun. It was scary, like, man, this guy one day is gonna just start shooting at us. We weren't supposed to [play tennis] until 7:30, 8 o'clock. But we ended up being good friends with this guy because he saw us there every week and we got to know each other.

DUEÑAS: I didn’t spend much time there [at Club de Soleil]. When we weren’t training or playing, I would just sleep all day, man. Just eat, sleep and play board games with my teammates, that’s it.

DURAN: Sometimes people just stayed [at Club de Soleil] for parties. One time I had to ask them to put me on the third floor instead of the second one. The second one, I don't know what the people were doing on the third floor, but it was like an elephant was on the third floor, you know? And I was asking, Please, I cannot sleep … and they changed it.

LAFC.COM: Let's talk for a second about the football. It was a challenging season in 2021. Thirty-two games. You won six of them.

DURAN: Yeah, thanks for the reminder. Look, I think that year, like always happens in new projects, we were kind of naïve … Steve and myself, we didn't know the league really well. I was more used to training at the academy level. … We learned a little bit through the year. We were trying to develop the players the way that the first team was asking us to develop them, trying to play a similar style. Sometimes we didn't have the tools, or sometimes we were planning the game, thinking of the players joining us, and at the last minute, our plan was gone.

The 2021 Lights went a respectable 4W-6L-1D over their first 11 games, but won just two of their last 21 games, including a 10-game losing skid.

DURAN: We started well, but then we had a really tough stretch. That stretch was a hard one to manage. As much as the club was always repeating to us that this was a development process for the players, as a coach you always have that interest in winning, because if you are not winning how are you going to keep building ideas or building the players or developing the players in the right direction? I will say that was a good learning process for all of us.

DUEÑAS: I was a right back with the Lights, before I transitioned to be a midfielder. Steve was also a right back and he taught me some tricks and gave me some advice. All I did was learn and learn and learn from him.

LAFC.COM: What else did you learn?

DUEÑAS: In 2021, I tore my ACL in Vegas, so I didn’t spend as much time as I wanted to with the Lights. Steve had the same injury as me—two times actually – so he helped me and gave me a lot of advice on how to recover faster with my knee.

DURAN: The young players learned about adversity. If you are losing and you are just 20 minutes away from home, it's okay. But imagine being on a bus for three or four hours every time you lose a game. Or coming back from Phoenix. We needed to find ways just to be positive and to have a good sense of humor about the situation.

LAFC.COM: The Lights had two llamas as their mascots, one of which was named … Dollie Llama.

ORDAZ: Yeah, I may have taken a starting lineup photo with the llamas.

LAFC.COM: After that 2021 season, Steve [Cherundolo] was hired as head coach of LAFC’s first team and you became head coach of the Lights.

DURAN: I think that first season taught us how to get positive results in the second year. We tweaked the roster a little bit, adding a little bit of experience ... And one other important thing is that the first season the first team was not having a good season [LAFC missed the MLS Cup playoffs in 2021]. And I think these things are always kind of contagious. When things are not going well in the first team, the second team is normally suffering, and when the first team was doing well, I think there were some kind of positive vibes about us doing well, too. [LAFC won MLS Cup in 2022.]

06032022 Romero Las Vegas Lights

ROMERO: We played good football [in 2022], but nothing came easy. One time, we left L.A. on Friday, after training, it was the middle of summer, lots of traffic, and our AC breaks down. We were kind of dead center between LA and Vegas, to where if we turned back it would have been the same distance as if we kept going. They asked how long it would take to get another bus out here. They said, ‘Well, honestly, by the time the new bus gets here you could already be in Vegas. Do you wanna just drive the rest of the way?’ So we opted for driving the rest of the way with no AC. By that point we were all sitting in a puddle of our own sweat.

DURAN: We got there and the players ran for water. (laughs)

ROMERO: We all got off the bus and went straight to the refrigerator and started drinking as much as we could. (laughs) The coaching staff was really cool about it. We had to do some training, some set pieces; we went out, I think, we may have been out there 10 minutes, gave up and went right to the hotel. We had a game the next day in the middle of the day.

ORDAZ: Those bus rides to Vegas were crazy. But they made you grow some callouses and just appreciate the first-team level.

ROMERO: Something Enrique [Duran] said a lot that season was, ‘No excuses. This is the hand we were dealt, now play it. Deal with it, figure it out.’ The guys were fantastic. No complaints, worked hard, dealt with whatever was thrown at us … One time missed our flight, arrived in Atlanta at 4:00 a.m., slept all day, no one ate, and we still got a point on the road.

ORDAZ: What I remember most was my debut. It was the first game I ever played as a professional, so it meant a lot. It was against Monterey Bay [in the tenth game of the 2022 season].

ROMERO: I know this sounds funny but for me it was a resurrection. My pro career started really well, then I kind of fell off, and LAFC kind of gave me an opportunity in Las Vegas, and I did the best I could with it. It gave me a second life, a second breath in my professional career, and now I’m the number two keeper here at LAFC, which is an honor and a privilege. But I think it all stemmed from there, from Vegas, and them taking what I would say was a gamble. ... I loved the team, I loved the fans, I had an amazing time playing there. It was one of those years where, you didn’t win anything, but you cherish it. I made a lot of good friends, lifelong friends from that team.

LAFC.COM: What was your reaction when you heard LAFC would play Vegas in U.S. Open Cup?

CHERUNDOLO: Best news of the week. We're very excited about that, especially those involved with the LAFC-Las Vegas Lights project for the past couple of years. Great news. Can't wait to get back to Cashman [Field].

ROSALES: It brought me back to those memories of training here [in L.A.] and then traveling to Vegas to play over there, and things just started flooding back to my mind. (laughs)

ORDAZ: I hope it’s not a bus ride. As long as it’s not a bus ride we’re good. Just a 45-minute flight!

DURAN: When we heard Las Vegas Lights was our opponent in the Open Cup, I wanted to play against them because even with all that stuff that I was explaining, I really think that as a person and as a coach, that project was really giving me a lot. And I really have good feelings about the Lights and how the people in the organization treated me and treated the project. It's going to be kind of an emotional moment because I have been never in the visiting locker room. I was there for almost three years and I don't know how the away locker room looks! I always went in one side of the stadium and now I'm going to be on the other side.

ROSALES: It will be a great experience being back there. I know they do crazy halftime shows. I don’t know if they still do them but it will be great to be back there, just to reminisce.

DUENAS: I feel great about going back to Cashman Field and being able to play. Hopefully we get the win and we celebrate on the field and move on to the next round.

LAFC will enter the 2024 Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup in the Round of 32 against United Soccer League (USL) Championship side, Las Vegas Lights. The win-and-advance match is scheduled for Wednesday, May 8, at 7:30 p.m. PT, and will be played at Cashman Field in Las Vegas, Nev. Tickets are available for $20 and up.

The match will be streamed for free on, and Radio coverage will be available on 710 AM ESPN, the ESPN LA App and KFWB 980 AM La Mera Mera.