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Donovan gives arena soccer a shot of exposure in U.S.-Mexico friendly

American soccer legend Landon Donovan, second from left, is mobbed by U.S. teammates after scoring the first goal Saturday. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Landon Donovan loves arena soccer.

Will Albuquerque-area sports fans, so smitten with New Mexico United on the big grass field, someday come to embrace the indoor game on the carpet?

Saturday’s United States-Mexico arena soccer friendly at the Santa Ana Star Center was, perhaps, a step in that direction.

A crowd of perhaps 1,500 attended the match, won 7-3 by Mexico – some there to see Donovan, some to root for Mexico, some for the U.S. Some, certainly, were supporters of the New Mexico Runners, who recently completed their first season in Major League Arena Soccer 2, and were already versed in the indoor game.

Donovan fans got their fix early. The U.S. soccer legend blasted home a goal at the 10:52 mark of the first quarter, tying the score at 1-1.

Before the match, in an interview with the Journal, Donovan said his love for the indoor game began early.

“Growing up,” he said, “we loved playing indoor more than playing outdoor because there was more action, more excitement, more opportunities as a goal scorer to score.”

If not a completely different game from its outdoor cousin, arena soccer is at the very least a drastic departure.

The comparisons between arena soccer and arena football are as valid as they are obvious; the indoor versions are faster-paced and higher-scoring.

How much higher? In the Runners’ 12 games this season, an average of 20 goals were scored. Saturday’s total of 10 goals could have been far higher if not for some near misses and some acrobatic saves by both goalkeepers.

The U.S.’s Landon Donavan (1) battles Mexico’s #8 Erick Ponce for the ball. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

MASL2 and its big brother, MASL, play four quarters of 15 minutes instead of two halves. Unlike in the outdoor game, the clock stops for out-of-bounds plays, after fouls and after goals. There is no added time at the end of each half.

The indoor game owes a lot to hockey. Substitutions are made on the fly, and a hard foul sends a player to a penalty box. Mexico went ahead 2-1 in the first half on a power-play goal.

Last season, Donovan played for the San Diego Sockers of the MASL.

“Honestly, it was almost like learning a whole new sport when I first started,” he said. “You’re using the same parts of your body and moving in similar ways. But everything, from the (substitutions), the rules of the game, obviously the bounces and the angles, playing on turf, was foreign to me.

“It took me a long time to get to a place where I was relatively comfortable.”

Here’s another thing about arena soccer: In the MASL and MASL2, tie games at the end of regulation are decided by an overtime period. And as Americans, we hate ties.

Well, at least we did.

Of NM United’s 25 matches, 10 have ended in ties. That hasn’t stopped folks from flocking to Isotopes Park in stunning numbers to revel in Albuquerque’s new sports phenomenon.

Manny Adjei, top, of the U.S. team heads the ball over Mexico’s David Gonzalez in the arena soccer friendly Saturday night at the Santa Ana Star Center. About 1,500 attended the match. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Regarding that, I have a theory. Yes, United has done a terrific job of marketing, and the product on the field has been more than competitive (until, at least, Saturday’s 5-0 debacle in San Antonio). But my theory is that Albuquerque now has enough kids who played soccer who had kids who played soccer who have kids who play soccer that the world’s No. 1 sport has finally entered the mainstream here.

Whether that mainstream will ever stream into the Star Center to watch arena soccer remains an open question.

Runners president and CEO Andres Trujillo, though, is confident he’ll find the answer.

“I think (Saturday’s game was) very important because of the fact that we’re establishing ourselves as New Mexico’s arena soccer team,” he said.

Attendance figures were available for only three of the Runners’ six home games, averaging about 735. Trujillo hopes to at least double that next season.

“The numbers are gonna jump, definitely,” he said, “now that people know we’re serious and we’re ready to rock and roll.”

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