On Dec. 7 in Kansas City, Mo., an injured Devon Sandoval watched from a suite – and later from the sidelines – as his Real Salt Lake teammates lost one of the best Major League Soccer championship games in the history of the league.
Although Sandoval’s rookie season in MLS came to a painful end, the former Eldorado and University of New Mexico star showed plenty of potential to make Real Salt Lake fans feel very good about the future.
Filling in for RSL’s injured forward Alvaro Saborio, Sandoval scored a goal in the first leg of the Western Conference finals against the Portland Timbers in Salt Lake. It was his third goal of the season in his 13th start, but it was also the last time he would be healthy.
Sandoval fractured his foot during the first leg against Portland but was able to start the second leg, a 1-0 Real Salt Lake win.
“It was a little frustrating,” Sandoval said. “In the second half against Portland at home, I felt a pop in my foot. It kept bothering me, I ended up fracturing it but I didn’t know until after the second game. So I was able to play through it.”
Sandoval showed he could play with just one healthy leg, but as the MLS Cup loomed, he hurt the other.
“My other ankle ended up getting really weak from overcompensating, and I ended up with a bone bruise,” Sandoval said. “I tried to practice the day before the MLS Cup and I couldn’t move. It was frustrating not being able to play in the finals.”
So Sandoval’s rookie season came to an end Dec. 6. The next day, Sporting Kansas City topped RSL in the longest penalty shootout in MLS Cup history. After 10 rounds, Real Salt Lake fell in the shootout, and Sporting KC celebrated.
“I still felt like our team was going to win, I had no doubt,” Sandoval said. “We were close, but we had our chances and that’s how soccer is sometimes. I had 100 percent confidence that we were going to win – I think we hit the post three times. That’s soccer.”
And soccer is something Sandoval has done very well in Albuquerque for a long time. He was a three-time All-State selection at Eldorado and was the Male Athlete of the Year in 2008 and 2009. After high school, Sandoval played one season at San Diego State and scored two goals in four starts before coming back home to Albuquerque and UNM. In his three years at UNM, Sandoval scored 26 goals and had 17 assists.
He also caught the attention of Real Salt Lake. Sandoval spent a week in the summer of 2012 training with RSL and, apparently, made quite the impression. In January’s MLS SuperDraft, Real Salt Lake traded three picks to move up the 29th pick of the second round to select Sandoval.
“It was a little nerve-racking but when they finally called my name, it was awesome” Sandoval said. “I couldn’t have been happier, especially coming here to play for Real Salt Lake.”
By hearing his name called at the draft, Sandoval also realized a lifelong dream.
“I’ve always wanted to be a professional soccer player, ever since I was a little kid,” Sandoval said. “I really started to think it was an option when I was a freshman or a sophomore in high school. That’s when I started to make some regional teams, so I got to play against some of the best kids in the country, and I realized I was good enough. When I was a junior in high school I went to Italy and played against teams from all around the world. I did well, so I always felt like I could go pro.”
Sandoval earned $35,125 this past season, according figures provided by the MLS Players Union at its website, mlsplayers.org. And he also easily acclimated to playing games away from Albuquerque.
“At the end of the day, I’m getting paid to do what I love,” Sandoval said. “That’s all I can ask for. I’m pretty happy with how everything went. The club and my teammates made it a really easy transition. I had a good time, and I’m happy to be here. When I moved out here I felt at home right away; it was an easy transition. I tell people it’s like a bigger version of Albuquerque.”
Now that he’s gone pro and left New Mexico, Sandoval wants to eventually go national. And he also wants another trip to the MLS Cup.
“I just want to build on what I did last year and keep it going until the start of the season,” Sandoval said. “My goal is to score more than I did last year, and if I do that it will be a successful one. I want to help my team get another shot at the Cup, I think we’re loaded, so I’m just going to keep working hard.
“As far as for goals down the road, I want to play for the national team one day. I need to keep working and keep getting better, keep scoring goals and keep getting better on the field, and hopefully one day I’ll get a call up.”