After months of anticipation, press releases, social media hype, and some familiar player signings, the New Mexico United soccer club is set to kick off their inaugural season this week at Isotopes Park.
Officially unveiled as an expansion club on June 7, 2018, New Mexico United will play in the United Soccer League Championship league (USL), which occupies the second tier of the U.S. soccer pyramid under Major League Soccer (MLS). As part of a rapidly expanding soccer landscape in the U.S., United will join 35 other teams in the league in pursuit of domestic silverware, including the USL Cup and the U.S. Open Cup.
While other pro or semi-pro soccer clubs in New Mexico have come and gone (New Mexico Chiles, Albuquerque Geckos), United appears set to stick around. In years past, scores of clubs around the country have folded due to lack of fan support, an inability to pay their players and league restructuring. The USL, meanwhile, has gained a firmer financial footing in the U.S. market through a closer relationship with MLS, promotion to Division II status by the U.S. soccer board of directors and a broadcast partnership with ESPN.
United’s roster has been slowly but steadily taking shape since native New Mexican and UNM men’s soccer alum Devon Sandoval was made the first signing in United’s history. Defenders Justin Schmidt and Josh Suggs and midfielders Josh Goss and Chris Wehan join Sandoval as players with ties to New Mexico. First assistant coach, director of goalkeepers and Lobo soccer alum Mike Graczyk joined the technical staff after spending the four previous years under Jeremy Fishbein as associate head coach of the UNM men’s soccer team.
United’s marketing and social media teams have been steadfastly promoting the club leading up the season. Billboards and bumper stickers have sprung up around the city of Albuquerque, and the club took input from the public before settling on the club name and branding designed to represent the entire state of New Mexico. Meow Wolf, the world-renowned art collective based in Santa Fe, was revealed as the inaugural home kit sponsor on Feb. 7 to a flood of positive reaction from supporters on social media. Marketed as the Jersey of Eternal Return, the kit and sponsorship deal are the first of its kind, according to team owner and president Peter Trevisani.
“We are the only professional team in the world that is partnering with an art collective as a front of the jersey sponsor,” Trevisani said in a press release. “Bridging art and sport in this way is not just ambitious, it’s uncharted territory.”
The Curse, the official supporters group of United, is aiming to make life punishing for visiting clubs by replicating the raucous atmosphere found at more established stadiums and teams around the world. The supporters section behind the goal on the south side of the soccer pitch figures to be rowdy during matches and explosive when goals are scored by the home side, according to Curse co-president David Carl.
However, the group avows to not tolerate the vandalism, hooliganism and racism that has plagued soccer culture in certain parts of the world for decades.
“While we're going to be loud and rowdy, we know that we as supporters represent New Mexico,” Carl said. “We won't tolerate any sort of violence or discrimination. But what we will do is make Isotopes Park hell for our opponents.”
With a clear, tangible pipeline of talent from UNM’s soccer team now joining the professional ranks at United, Carl was perplexed by the University’s decision last year to cut the men’s soccer team.
“We love the Lobos… it's a real shame that New Mexico families are the ones faced with the repercussions of poor decisions and management by the University,” Carl said. “Soccer is an amazing unifying force and a really great way to build community; we hope the men's team comes back.”
Despite the challenges facing the men’s team on the collegiate side, New Mexicans have demonstrated a clear appetite for watching the beautiful game in Albuquerque. United’s first preseason fixture, a friendly against the University of Denver, saw an announced crowd of 1,215 braving windy, frigid conditions at the UNM Soccer and Track complex to get their first glimpse of competition action from the upstart club. Sandoval provided the only goal of the match with a composed finish following a turnover in the second half, and the team and technical staff met with supporters for autographs and selfies after the match.
United will wrap up their preseason with a series of friendlies in Tucson, AZ culminating in a March 1 fixture against USL League One (third tier) side FC Tucson.
On the fence about attending a match this season? The Curse want to convince you to join them in creating a supporters culture from scratch.
“We welcome both the lifelong soccer fans and people who have never watched a match,” said Carl. “Everybody is out here joining us for a different reason, but we all have one thing in common: we love New Mexico, (and) nobody has pride like New Mexicans do, so come out and cheer on YOUR club with us. We're in it together.”
United will open up their 2019 slate with a fixture against Fresno FC at Isotopes Park on March 9 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets range from $13 to $125 and are available on their , by phone or at the Isotopes Park box office.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites.