Brothers Franck and Uzi Tayou had been in Las Vegas about two months, two among nine siblings who arrived here after their father fled political persecution in his homeland. It was 2006. Franck, then 16, and Uzi, 17, were looking for a place to play soccer one day. They found a field near Meadows Mall and a team of Hispanics; neither the brothers nor the players spoke much English, but they reached a quick agreement.
Play 10 minutes, the Hispanic players told the Tayous. Let’s see what you can do. There was one problem, though: Neither of the brothers had cleats. In Cameroon, they’d always played barefoot. Only Franck had so much as sneakers. Since Uzi was in better shape at the time, Franck let him use the sneakers, and in 10 minutes he scored a goal. The Hispanic team mobbed the brothers and invited them onto the team. Within days, the team bought them cleats.
Fast-forward six years: The two have learned English, graduated Valley High School in less than two years, played junior college soccer in Washington and Kansas and NCAA championship games for West Virginia University and returned to Las Vegas earlier this year to sign with the Valley’s new professional indoor soccer team, the Las Vegas Legends.
Along the way, the Tayous paid their share of dues: sleeping on floors, studying English before school, making Frosted Flakes a staple food and riding the public bus to practice. Now they’re part of an experiment that makes perfect sense in a town where more than one in five people are foreign-born and nearly one in three speak a language other than English at home. The idea: Bring the world’s most popular sport, soccer, to what was the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan area for most of the past two decades.
The Las Vegas Legends played their first two home games Nov. 1 and 4, winning one and losing one. They return to the Orleans Arena after several away games on Dec. 6. It’s clear as you look at the names on the jerseys and listen to the chatter on the field that many of the players are immigrants or children of immigrants. The goalkeeper in the first game, Ezequiel Sanchez, is Argentinean. Esad Morina—who played for a professional team in Turkey before emigrating to Las Vegas, where he coaches a local youth club—is from Kosovo. Coach Greg Howes is from Tacoma, Wash., but the rest of the coaching staff hails from Ireland, Jamaica and South Africa.
It’s also clear that the team’s success may hinge on the relationships the immigrant players have formed along the way, a series of hands helping them up. The crowd is small but studded with mentors and friends and family—the beginning, perhaps, of a community, a fan base. There’s Rita Knox, the guidance counselor at Valley High who constantly encouraged the Tayous when they felt like giving up, then pushed them to apply for college; she was at the first game to see the Legends win, 11-2. The game drew 775 fans to an arena that seats 6,800. But by the second game, a more competitive affair that the home team lost to the Anaheim Bolts, 11-8, attendance had grown to 1,145—including three of the Tayou siblings.
The Legends return home to face Real Phoenix on Dec. 6. They’re unlikely to sell out the Orleans Arena anytime soon, but that’s OK. These guys are used to doing things the hard way.