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NM United becomes major local attraction

New Mexico United fans wildly cheer for their favorite team before the squad’s inaugural game March 9 at Isotopes Park. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Speaking practically, it just doesn’t compute.

A first-year, minor-league sports franchise capturing the hearts and imaginations of a notoriously apathetic community that has made a habit of ignoring or rejecting such enterprises?

“We’re not the best at supporting things,” said Albuquerque aerospace engineer Billy Anthony.

Not that Albuquerque/Rio Rancho, with its attractive market size, hasn’t had suitors who believed they could set up camp and gain traction. Indoor football. Hockey. Basketball. Even soccer. The number of teams that either failed to sustain long-term interest, or that petered out quickly, are too numerous to catalog.

There has been only one steady partnership in this city, that involving the Albuquerque Dukes/Isotopes.

But, in the phenomenon that is the New Mexico United soccer team, is there finally another anchor sports franchise?

“We, as a state, as New Mexicans, have always been told from Day 1, you’re not good enough, your state has a chip on its shoulder, you’re drug addicts, you’re terrible with education … as New Mexicans, we’re tired of hearing that,” said David Carl, president of a United fan club called The Curse, which has about 450 members.

“We’ve got something here to rally around, so we can tell the rest of the country that this is ours and we’ll make it as great as we can.”

In just over a year – the team was founded last June – the United, one of 36 franchises in the United Soccer League’s Championship division, the second-highest men’s level in the country behind Major League Soccer, has with its business model and high-quality soccer yielded unusually large fan support.

“People are showing up because it’s new and it’s something exciting,” said R.J. Montaño, vice president of The Curse. “The casual person is trying to pick it up, too. I’m shocked at how fast.”

To wit: New Mexico leads the USL in average attendance, at 12,836 fans a game. (A chart of the top 10 accompanies this story.)

The team has even surpassed 15,000 fans for one of its home games at Isotopes Park.

Not only that, but the United has stepped up in class and beaten two MLS teams – the Colorado Rapids and FC Dallas – in the ongoing Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup.

“It is 15,000 New Mexicans,” Carl said. “It’s different cheering for something that is uniquely New Mexican that you can’t find anywhere else.”

Minnesota bound

Shoppers check out New Mexico United gear at the team store in Nob Hill on Friday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

On Wednesday, the United, having already dispatched the previously mentioned Major League Soccer sides, is in Minneapolis to face another: the Minnesota United in the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open Cup. Founded in 1914, the U.S. Open Cup is the longest-running national soccer competition in the country, with 94 clubs from all divisions of American soccer participating to crown a champion in September.

And the New Mexico United, despite a 1-0 setback in Salt Lake City on Saturday night against the Real Monarchs SLC of the USL, is a scalding-hot property. Around the Duke City, bright yellow United decals can be seen decorating the back of cars and trucks, and team gear is flying off the shelves at the team store on Central Avenue.

But this may best exemplify the hunger for all things United: A charter flight to Minneapolis to accommodate local fans for Wednesday’s U.S. Open Cup game sold out all 180 seats in seven minutes. And other fans are expected to make their way north by other means.

“It’s beautiful,” said Anthony, who has already attended United road games in El Paso, Denver and Dallas and who is flying to Minneapolis. “This is not normal for (New Mexico).”

So how has this newby franchise generated such grassroots pandemonium from almost scratch, and so quickly?

“I think what’s different about this team is, they’re not just taking from the community, they’re giving to the community,” said Rachel Johnson, a member of The Curse who has been to all the United home games, traveled to a couple of road games and who will be on the flight to Minneapolis. “You have players showing up at the hospital, showing up at youth camps. The staff, pretty much anything asked of them … they are the kindest, most warm people. I feel like they’re my family.”

The United is not the only local soccer team; the Albuquerque Sol, a fourth-tier team in American soccer, has been playing home games at St. Pius X the last few years.

Previous pro soccer ventures in the city have included the likes of the New Mexico Chiles and the Albuquerque Geckos. But their followings didn’t come close to approximating this rabid United fan base. Even for all of its success and decent-sized crowds, the now-defunct University of New Mexico men’s program could only dream of such robust support at its home venue across the street.

“They have done an exceptional job of including the community and I personally am so proud they are representing our state. I’m a huge fan,” UNM women’s soccer coach Heather Dyche said in an interview from France, where she is with the U.S. Women’s National team for today’s World Cup final as part of the U.S. soccer staff.

‘Perfect storm

There are, Carl theorized, three major components to the United’s magic fan-base elixir, the first being, of course, that Albuquerque has a healthy number of soccer fans to begin with.

“Also, there are people who have never been to a soccer game in their entire life (coming to games),” he said. “And the third group is, they’re here because they’re winning. All those things have combined into a perfect storm.”

New Mexico United was leading the USL’s Western Conference for the first couple of months, but have slipped in recent weeks and now are tied for sixth place. Unlike most everyone else in the USL – St. Louis is the other USL franchise that is still alive in the U.S. Open Cup – United (6-4-8 following the loss in Utah) has had to mix in midweek trips to Denver and Dallas smack in the middle of their USL slate, and almost certainly have been hamstrung by the hectic nature of their travel calendar.

To that end, the United is in the midst of a mammoth road stretch, with 50 days between USL home dates. They don’t host another USL rival until El Paso on July 31.

They do, however, step out of league once more on July 18 to face Cardiff City FC of the English Premier League in a friendly at the UNM Soccer Complex.

“It’s the second rung of American soccer, but it doesn’t feel that way,” Carl said. “Everything was done in a way that made it feel major league.”

The United still has 10 remaining home games at Isotopes Park, including six of its final seven, from the end of this month through the middle of October.

Matching up

New Mexico’s United attendance figures are no surprise to the team’s owner, Peter Trevisani, although even he admits that these totals weren’t altogether expected.

“We’ve tried to put this team together using our heart as much as our head,” he said. “Maybe that’s why we’ve been able to capture the imaginations of New Mexicans.”

Trevisani said he recalled a conversation prior to the season in which someone suggested that 6,000-7,000 fans per home game would be a terrific number to achieve.

“My response was, ‘We can do better than that,’ ” Trevisani said. “One of the things we wanted to do with this team was to think differently about how we can do things, things that don’t ground us. I heard somebody say that people tend to ground themselves in the past to predict the future. My finance background trained me not to do that. You need to be forward thinking.

“I’m not concerned about the teams that have come and gone, I’m just worried about what we will be providing. It’s all about what they (fans) are expecting from us, not what we are expecting from them. And the good news is, we’re just getting started.”

Still, before even the first home date in early March – when 12,000-plus watched the United draw 1-1 with Fresno – the original blueprint was to sell just 6,200 seats. But the demand for tickets was so fierce that all of Isotopes Park became available in just about a New York minute.

“It’s unreal. Incredible environment,” said Dyche, who is a season-ticket holder.

Many United fans already are devout followers of an MLS team, or perhaps a Mexican League team, or possibly a club in Europe. Together, they have created a carnival-type atmosphere at Isotopes Park. There is copious tailgaiting before kickoff, and, fans boast, a constant party fever permeating through the stadium for the entire 90 minutes that includes drum beating, flag waving, smoke bombs and noisemakers. On the night the United upset the Rapids, the Denver Post described New Mexico’s fans as “ruckus” and “loudmouthed.”

“One of the things I’m most proud of is the diversity (of our fans),” Trevisani said. “I love that there is no typical New Mexico United fan profile. It’s all of us.”

The United, even maybe more than Lobo men’s basketball, might be the most must-see product in Albuquerque right now.

“I think it’s because of the front office and doing things right,” said Montaño. “We’ve wanted something like this forever. (But) I’ve never seen anything grow this fast. They’re putting New Mexico first, people who are from New Mexico, who are proud of New Mexico, being a positive catalyst for change.”

Fans interviewed for this story, to a person, cited the team’s fan-friendly approach as one of the reasons the team’s popularity has skyrocketed in Albuquerque. Not to mention the appetite for the sport itself.

“There’s enough of us individually who finally get to … show it together with a large group of people,” said Anthony. “We were just excited New Mexico had our own team and to express our passion.”

Johnson, a nurse who also works for the Somos Unidos News, the official newsletter of the New Mexico United, said she picked up a second job just so she could continue to fund her soccer travels and thirst for team merchandise.

“New Mexico United is New Mexico’s team,” said Anthony, who moved to Albuquerque from Las Cruces a few years ago.

And don’t think the USL offices, based in Tampa, Fla., haven’t stood up and taken notice of this honeymoon.

“New Mexico United is a good example of what the future of this league could look like,” said Ryan Madden, vice president of communications for the USL. “They’ve paved a path forward in a way … that’s remarkable. There aren’t many teams in any league – MLS, USL – that have captured the hearts and minds of a local fan base the way New Mexico United have.”

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