Really, it was always going to be Devon Sandoval.
The first player signed. Introduced at the franchise announcement. The former Eldorado High and Lobo soccer star.
The 25th minute thunderbolt from the hometown kid gave expansion New Mexico United its first-ever goal in a 1-1 draw with Fresno FC on Saturday night in front of an announced 12,896 flag-waving fans at Isotopes Park.
“I’ve played in a lot of big games, this one was special,” Sandoval said. ‘”Extremely proud to be a part of this. Disappointed we couldn’t see it out and get the win.”
The result wasn’t the most significant outcome anyway. The faithful were leaving contented. The inaugural match for the New Mexico team in the United Socccer League’s Championship Division was a celebration prematch to the final whistle.
Fans were tailgating three hours before kickoff with “The Curse,” the official supporter group, which is a mix of hardened soccer partisans and soccer converts.
Andrew Bolte, 38, of Albuquerque helped found the “Sandianistas,” a soccer supporter group for the Albuquerque Sol and New Mexico Lobos back in 2013.
“I will drum as long as my arms will allow me too,” Bolte said. “You don’t have to be a soccer fan to be involved with New Mexico United. It’s wonderful to have this team, which is all about New Mexico.”
Volcano Vista freshman Carlos Tenorio wore a sombrero, draped in an NMU scarf and Zia flag over his team shirt. He stood front row of the supporter section for his first pro soccer match, vuvuzela in hand.
“New Mexico has really needed a pro team. I want to be involved as I can,” Tenorio said. “For the love of the state. The state has been very divided. It just brings something the state can build around.”
A few political faces made appearances Saturday with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham delivering the match ball. Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller delivered a recorded video message to fans.
Pregame included a flag run assisted by the Notah Begay Foundation (NB3F). Roughly 40 Native kids representing over 10 tribes planted New Mexico United flags at midfield after a partial lap of the field.
As for the soccer? Neither team made claims to the center of the pitch. United patiently worked the ball around its back line probing for cracks in the Fresno defensive rotation to push the ball wide.
Fresno found space attacking the right channel but the final service was lacking. New Mexico United captain Josh Suggs proved an impediment too, a tidy defensive display from the Las Cruces native.
“The crowd is amazing, especially for the New Mexico guys it’s difficult to balance that emotion,” Suggs said. “It’s just hard to focus when you’re that emotional. We struggled a little bit.”
Fresno scored in the 47th minute, wasting no time out of the interval exploring the flanks to find the equalizer. An Alex Cooper cross and powerful Jackson header deflated the home fans.
Yes, just Jackson. The Brazilian goes by one name.
“We come away from the game thinking we lost three points,” said United goalkeeper Cody Mizell. “We set the tone, we got back in our rhythm. …
“(The) atmosphere was unbelievable. Every single one of (the players) have played in some inaugural. This blows it out of the water.”