The soccer season that began on an August night in Los Angeles reaches a juncture tonight in Albuquerque.
The University of New Mexico men’s team expected to be here all along, expected to be playing in the NCAA Tournament, expected to have a home match in the middle of November to share with its community.
Of course, expecting and succeeding are not always the same, so the Lobos went to work, beginning with the 3-2 victory over then-No. 2 UCLA.
NCAA Tournament: Virginia at New Mexico, 7 p.m.
Tonight is a different kind of challenge.
New Mexico (16-3-1) faces one of the premier programs in men’s soccer – the Virginia Cavaliers.
UV has six national championships, a 53-27-4 NCAA Tournament record and has been to the NCAAs for 32 straight seasons, the longest current stretch of anyone.
“Virginia is one of the most storied teams in NCAA soccer in terms of national championships, producing national team players,” UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein said. “It’s a great program.”
Yet, tonight, it’s Fishbein’s program that is the favorite. The Lobos are the 13th seed in the 48-team tournament. And they are playing at home, in one of the better environments for college soccer in the country.
“I know our guys are confident,” Fishbein said. “They’re real excited to be at home, have that energy of the crowd. We expect to win when we play at home.”
The Lobos drew more than 6,200 fans to their NCAA Tournament match last year against Duke. UNM won in overtime on Carson Baldinger’s goal.
“It’s a pretty special atmosphere here when the place is full and rocking,” Fishbein said. “And I think it will be (today). It’s a unique environment, just coming to New Mexico. I’m from the Midwest, and this was the wild, wild west to me. I didn’t know what to expect.
“The altitude is something that adds a little stress.
“But that being said, 18- to 23-year-olds, they do think they’re invincible. They’ll be excited to play here, and they’ll be excited by our crowd, just as we will.”
The Cavaliers (10-6-4) have already faced tough road matches at Maryland (the NCAA’s No. 2 seed) and at North Carolina (seeded No. 9), both 1-0 losses.
Virginia is led by forward Will Bates, the only senior on the team. Bates, who has 12 goals this season, was named first-team All-ACC for the second straight year. The Cavaliers also have three players on the All-ACC freshman team.
Virginia defeated Lafayette (Pa.) 1-0, on a header by Bates, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.
The Lobos are led by senior Devon Sandoval, who has 14 goals, sophomore James Rogers (seven goals, five assists), senior Blake Smith (three goals, 13 assists) and freshman Ben McKendry (seven goals).
Says Smith: “This team is the tightest-knit group I’ve been with in my four years here. The guys are hungry. We’re excited to be back, hoping to go further than last year.”
UNM will be without starting goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez tonight. Rodriguez (0.52 goals against average) was suspended one tournament game by the NCAA after an incident in last year’s tournament. Sophomore Patrick Poblete (0.99) gets the start tonight.
“Patrick in goal is great,” Fishbein said. “He was excellent on Sunday (in the 1-1 draw with Air Force). He was thrown into a big situation to open the season at UCLA. I thought he was fantastic. We have full confidence in him. Vic just has a little more experience, that’s all.”
The winner of tonight’s match plays either No. 4 Connecticut (15-3-1) or Northeastern (9-5-5) on Nov. 25.
The Lobos were eliminated by South Florida on penalty kicks in the third round of last year’s NCAA Tournament. They finished 18-0-4, but the ending was unsatisfying for the returning players.
Tonight they hope to begin to erase that taste. And they hope to share it.
“I want the people of Albuquerque, the people of New Mexico who have been such incredible supporters of this program to understand the impact they have on our game performance,” Fishbein said. “… We take a lot of pride in having ‘New Mexico’ across our jerseys. And when we have people out there, it just brings tremendous energy to everyone.”
NOTES: UNM and Virginia have met only once, a 1-1 draw in the 2004 NCAA Tournament. The Cavaliers advanced on penalty kicks. … Current Lobo assistant Brandon Moss played for New Mexico that day. … Virginia’s six NCAA titles came between 1989 and 2009. … The Cavaliers have had four Hermann Trophy winners, the last being Alecko Eskandarian in 2002. … UNM is 8-6-3 all-time in NCAA Tournament games. It reached the finals in 2005.
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal