New Mexico United: Proving soccer can thrive

New Mexico United enjoyed a terrific inaugural season in USL in 2019. After the loss of the Lobo Soccer team at the University of New Mexico, they are proving that soccer can thrive.

The inaugural season of New Mexico United in the United Soccer League Championship was a magical one full of ups and downs, and with a successful men’s soccer team cut from the University of New Mexico’s list of sponsored sports this past season, it was just what the city needed.

The Lobo Soccer team, who played less than a half a mile away from the United’s current home at Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, was consistently successful and made 12 NCAA tournament appearances, all of which came in the last two decades and all but two coming under long-time head coach Jeremy Fishbein, who completed his 14th season in charge of the program at the time it folded.

The Athletic Department at the University of New Mexico had to make a tough decision, and with disapproval and backlash from fans, there was a rather gaping hole in the local soccer community. Even though basketball and football are the ‘money-making’ sports in college athletics, more money hasn’t equated to more success for those programs at New Mexico. There was also a lack of local players on those rosters as scholarship players; rather, it was the University’s soccer program that recruited locally and awarded scholarships to local guys in volume.

The 2018 team, which was the last year a team was fielded, had seven local players on its roster when their season ended. And much like the rest of the country, soccer is on the rise in the state of New Mexico and its best players may now be forced to look for college options elsewhere.

Luckily it wasn’t long that the city of Albuquerque went without the sport. The Lobos’ season ended in November 2018 and the inaugural home opener for New Mexico United was only four months later on March 9th against Fresno.

With a community that has a passion for local talent playing for their sports teams (i.e. Brian Urlacher and Kenny Thomas, UNM Football and Basketball) fans were able to see familiar faces on the field again as the 2019 United roster featured four New Mexicans, three of which are former Lobos players, including forward Devon Sandoval who comes back home with MLS experience.

New Mexico United hit the ground running in what looks like a temporary home at Isotopes Park. They didn’t lose their first match until an away game in Reno almost a month into the season. By the end of the season, United qualified for the USL Championship Playoffs, finishing in 10th place in the West with a record of 11-10-13. It has made for a great first season in Albuquerque.

Moreover, something not to be excluded was a deep run in the U.S. Open Cup with defining wins against MLS clubs FC Dallas and the Colorado Rapids before ultimately falling to Minnesota United 6-1 in the quarter-finals. United and fellow USL Championship member St. Louis FC were the only non-MLS clubs that made it that far.

The season slowed down as fatigue set in during the second half of the season, which nearly resulted in missing out on a playoff berth altogether. But through the ups and downs, the fans showed up. They showed up for several soldout matches and put United at the top of the league in average attendance in their first year, which topped out at 12,693 fans per match.

And with that, the city that lost a beloved sports team one year gained what could be something special the next. Whether or not a move to MLS down the road is feasible in the New Mexican broadcasting market remains to be seen, but plans to build a soccer-specific stadium downtown by club owner Peter Trevisani and massive support by the local community and city government makes United’s future a bright one in New Mexico.