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Las Vegas’ soccer scene is kicking it up a notch

Tristan Blackmon has spent so much of his soccer career alongside Danny Musovski, he can’t even remember for certain when they first became teammates.

Blackmon, a former Bishop Gorman High star, is pretty sure he first met Musovski, the state’s all-time leading goal scorer during his days at Liberty High, when Blackmon was 8 years old and they were on the same youth team.

“I think our first team ever was maybe the Penguins,” Blackmon says. “We were teammates for three or four years and then became rivals for a little while, but he was a little bit older than me, so he played in an age group higher than I did toward the end of our club career.”

The 24-year-old Musovski and the 23-year-old Blackmon are now teammates again, this time at the highest level of domestic soccer. Musovski signed a deal with Major League Soccer’s Los Angeles Football Club before the start of the 2020 season, to rejoin Blackmon, whom the team drafted third overall two years ago.

On July 8, MLS became the latest sports league to restart after a pandemic interruption, kicking off a World Cup-style tournament with its 26 clubs in Orlando, Florida. LAFC, the betting favorite to win the competition—3-to-1 at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook—begins its set of three group-stage games July 13 at 5 p.m. against the Houston Dynamo.

“We really took it to the next level last year winning the Supporters’ Shield [awarded to the team with the best regular-season record],” Blackmon says. “That’s always going to put a target on your back. Even though we didn’t win the MLS Cup, I think every team we play against gives us their best game. We have high expectations for this tournament.”

The second-favorites by the odds, the Seattle Sounders (8-to-1), also have a local product on their roster. Daniel Leyva, a 17-year-old phenom, was born and raised in Las Vegas before moving to Seattle two years ago to join the squad’s youth academy.

That much Vegas talent on display in the tournament, which will largely be aired on ESPN, might come as a surprise to many, considering Southern Nevada hasn’t traditionally been known as a strong soccer-development area. But that’s starting to change, according to Frank D’Amelio, who has spent the past 30 years immersed in the scene here.

“In the past 10 years, I would consider us a hotbed as far as talent,” he says. “We’ve put out a lot of players, both in the MLS and USL [United Soccer League] and kids going overseas and training with different teams. There’s been very good, very consistent growth.”

D’Amelio is in his second stint as an assistant coach for UNLV’s men’s soccer team and doubles as a staff coach for younger players with the Downtown Soccer Club. He coached and advised Leyva and spent almost a decade around Musovski, who went on to a storied career at UNLV, including two-time All-America honors.

“He’s one of the biggest competitors in the league,” D’Amelio says of Musovski. “He wants to win, and if he doesn’t, he’s going to have something to say about it. He’s just a driven kid who does everything he can to succeed. Does he look like the traditional soccer player? No, probably because he’s a little bowlegged, but once he gets on the field, then you see what he’s about.”

D’Amelio only ever coached against Blackmon, who was somewhat overshadowed by players like Musovski growing up.

“I think Tristan blossomed more once he got into college,” D’Amelio says. “He was a good player in town, but the best player? Probably not. It’s been great to see his success.”

Blackmon played at California’s University of the Pacific, where he became the school’s all-time leading goal scorer, alternating between forward and defenseman and becoming a first-round MLS prospect. The San Jose Earthquakes selected Musovski in the second round of the same 2018 draft, before loaning him to the USL’s Reno 1868, the club for which he played the past two seasons.

Musovski serves mostly in a reserve role with LAFC, while Blackmon is implanted in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future after signing a three-year extension before this season.

“It’s crazy to see how both of our journeys have gone and how they’ve met back up in a city not far from our hometown,” Blackmon says. “He’s a great dude; we get along really well. I’m happy for him and cheering on his strides in his career, as I’m sure he is for me.”

LAFC had a March 12 match in the CONCACAF Champions League—which features all the best clubs in North America—called off hours before kickoff as the severity of the coronavirus became evident. Players were then quarantined on their own for two months before MLS permitted teams to hold training sessions.

Blackmon said the time apart went smoother than anticipated, with the team devising detailed workout programs. Even minus best player and top MLS star Carlos Vela, who opted out of the restart tournament to stay home with his pregnant wife, LAFC is ready to go, Blackmon says.

“It’s all been a little wonky, but we’ve reinforced the ideas we’ve set forth on our team and tried to build on those, even when we were at home,” he says. “We’re extremely excited to come back.”

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