On Saturday afternoon on the dry grass soccer fields at St. Pius High Schools, aspiring professionals were scattered near the pitch. Stacks of blue and orange disc cones and distinct clusters of pinneys sorted by color also sat nearby.
The Premier Development League soccer team Albuquerque Sol held its fifth annual open tryout. The Sol compete in the fourth division of American professional soccer.
Sol president Ron Patel and Fred Williams from Sol gameday operations sat under a Black Adidas tent greeting trialists who had paid the $35 registration fee. Each attendee received a white Sol T-shirt with the team crest in black ink on the chest.
A sharp whistle brought the players together for some pep talks from Patel, GM Larry Espinoza and new coach Justin Sells.
“That crest you see on your chest, you can wear it on your heart,” Patel said. “Whether or not you make the team, you’re a part of this.”
The Sol actually sold out registrations with more than 100 total players trying out in morning and afternoon sessions. That sum included eight players from outside New Mexico.
“It seems like each year we’ve grown more and more the snowball seems like the most energy we’ve had at tryouts,” Patel said. “We’re seeing a lot of new faces. Anyone can make the team; it doesn’t matter if you’ve played with us before.”
A new coaching staff led by Justin Sells recruited hard to get local talent to the tryout.
“It’s great to have local roots from our new staff, it’s helped out a lot,” Sol majority owner Aaron Hageman said.
The tryout was split into a technical assessment for the first half and full sided scrimmages for the second portion. The players were split into three distinct groups doing similar passing drills. A network of cones and skinny yellow plastic poles marked the course.
It was evident the central group of players was the most advanced as coaches sent individual players from outside groups into the middle. At times the central group dominated the coaching staff’s attention.
“There’s a higher level here that is not cookie cutter,” Espinoza said. “Guys that thought they weren’t going to get a shot came out. Knowledge of the game seems to be a little better.”
When play was smooth the only sound was the thud of each kick and sprints of exertion to the next destination. When quality waned, the soundtrack included barked orders from the coaching staff about tempo, communication, and focus.
“Not good enough,” yelled Sol goalkeeper coach Travis Masterson. “If you can’t complete a 10-yard pass you shouldn’t be here.”
A couple hot air balloons danced on the horizon as the scrimmage commenced.
Following the tryout, the coaching staff and GM will compare notes and extend invites to 25-30 players for a February camp. Espinoza estimates the Sol have agreements with 10 players for roster spots. The full team sheet will be completed via the tryouts and other recruitment.
In the PDL, the Sol may have eight players over age 23. The club is aiming for five or six experienced players above that age limit. Sells says he’s looking for a mix of local players and college talent.
“It’s a tryout, so you’re not trying to coach but put them in activities and drills so you can see technically, how clean they are on the ball, and physically their movement,” Sells said. “You can’t take it personal if you don’t make the team.”
A year ago, Zach Estell, 27, found a place on the Sol from these tryouts. He was back for more in 2018 with a sedate outlook.
“Just try to be a little better each day not try be better than guy next to you,” Estell said. “I hope that I showed I’m ready to work as hard as I can for the team.”
One of the aspirants is La Cueva High senior goalkeeper Anthony Muñoz. At just 18, Muñoz was one of the younger attendees. He trained with the Sol last spring.
“I want to show the best of my abilities, something the coaches can see to find a spot on the team.”
CJ Klepac, 24, played for the New Mexico Lobos from 2012-2014. He grew up in Farmington and knows there is sufficient of talent in the state.
“Plenty of players in New Mexico have quality they just have to find a team,” Klepac said. “I’ve had numerous people tell me I can play professionally I just haven’t had a good opportunity to showcase what I can do and this is a good opportunity.”
There were some familiar faces present as well. Luke Lawrence, 23, recently graduated from UNM and the former Lobo soccer star played for the Sol since the start.
“I’ve loved playing with the Sol. I have a lot of Albuquerque and New Mexico pride,” Lawrence said. “I’m trying to get some training, I’m never too good to play with anyone.”
Lawrence has tryouts with Penn FC and Phoenix Rising, two United Soccer League (second division) clubs at the end of January. Another local product, Isaiah Madrid, 23, has a Penn FC tryout as well. Madrid played with the Sol for three seasons.
“It’s been fun to see the growth in the community,” Madrid said of the Sol. “It’s something Albuquerque needed and it’s good to represent Albuquerque.”