Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
After the floodlights darkened at Papa Murphy’s Park in Sacramento, California, and the curtains came down on New Mexico United’s season on Oct. 23, Devon Sandoval had time to shine a critical light on whether the fledgling soccer club lived up to the expectations surrounding its debut season.
From his perspective, the organization already stands among the elite in the ninth year of the USL Championship league’s existence.
Despite his young 28 years, the Albuquerque native and Eldorado High School graduate cut the figure of a grizzled veteran on the pitch during his first season with New Mexico United. Sandoval exuded an air of humility from the beginning, a quiet charisma and good-natured humor underlying his gratitude for the chance to play the sport from which he has carved a career.
According to United’s head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne, those were precisely the qualities he was looking for after he signed on to the project and spent time getting to know the New Mexico community.
“Whenever I started to put together what I wanted our culture to be centered around as a team, the words that I came up with were hard work, humility and diligence,” Lesesne told the Journal. “With Sandoval, you quickly recognize that’s exactly who he is. He leads by example and makes everyone measure up to the way he works on the field.”
Following a stint with Atlanta United’s reserve side during the senior team’s 2018 MLS Cup-winning campaign, Sandoval said he wasn’t sure what to expect after becoming the first player to sign for New Mexico United.
“When I came (in June of 2018), my expectations were low – I was expecting another second division club to be run poorly,” Sandoval said. “That wasn’t the case at all. They’re doing it right, and the community sees that.”
The forward’s 2019 campaign was bookended by two remarkably similar episodes: One professional, one personal.
Supporters of the club got their first taste of the frenzied phenomena that accompanies the oft-elusive goal in a professional contest, courtesy of Sandoval on March 9.
His 25th minute strike in New Mexico’s first regular season match – a dagger that caused the broadcast announcer’s excited voice to distort the microphone – marked his name in permanent ink in United’s record books.
That first goal was perhaps only exceeded in bombastic effect by the last of the regular season, which also came via Sandoval on Oct. 19 and ensured New Mexico’s postseason passage.
On the personal front, plying his trade in his native city gave Sandoval an opportunity he had yet to realize in a career that had thus far spanned four time zones and seven clubs: sharing his achievements with his daughter.
Before a preseason friendly in February, Sandoval’s daughter Lyanna – less than a year old at the time – prefaced a 1-0 win over the University of Denver by calling him “dada” for the first time. Eight months later, she walked out to the pitch with him in the regular season finale, which also marked a first for the young family.
“Being able to walk out with my daughter in that moment and in that game … It was a special moment, and that just added to it,” Sandoval said.
A career year
After finishing college play at the University of New Mexico, Sandoval was drafted in 2013 in the second round by the MLS team Real Salt Lake, and remained there three seasons. Other teams he played for included the San Francisco Deltas in the NASL league and Atlanta United 2 for part of 2018.
After signing with New Mexico United, he watched his stats soar.
Before he came to New Mexico, Sandoval had tallied 22 goals in all competitions since his professional debut. This season, he set career highs with 14 goals and 5 assists.
Sandoval credits his family’s presence at the matches for playing a key role.
“It kind of brings me back to my college days at UNM,” Sandoval said. “I wouldn’t be here without them, and when I see them in the stands, it gives me a little extra push.”
Playing in a system that allowed his potential as a goal scorer to flourish was also central to Sandoval’s success.
“I knew what his skillset was, having coached against him last year when he was in Atlanta. Seeing him the years prior for San Francisco (Deltas) and Rayo OKC and certainly Real Salt Lake, he’s an absolute goal scorer,” Lesesne said. “I think this season, what was great for him was I’m such an attacking minded coach…. So that means that a lot of our focal point, sometimes to a fault, is centered around the final third and how we’re going to create.
“When you match up my coaching philosophy with a guy who has those instincts in the box, it’s no wonder that he had the best season of his career.”
Eight of Sandoval’s 14 goals came during a torrid stretch in the last two months of New Mexico’s regular season. He believes his quality as a soccer player has been present throughout his career; he just needed a measure of regularity to allow his skillset to shine through.
“It’s something that’s always been there. (Consistency) is the main factor,” Sandoval said. “It takes time for players to gel together, and I think that’s what you saw at the end of the year. I’ve shown it in the past when I’ve been given the opportunity – (this year) wasn’t a surprise to me.”
Sandoval’s status as one of the elder statesmen of New Mexico’s inaugural roster after a journeyman career arc gave the front office a solid marketing foundation upon which to build.
Sandoval’s ties to Albuquerque made that a simple task.
“He was thrust into this scenario of kind of being a poster child for New Mexico United,” Lesesne said. “He loves the state of New Mexico, he loves the city, (but) he’s not the guy that wants to be in front of the cameras. He just wants to do his job, and he wants people to respect the work that he puts in.”
As for Sandoval’s offseason plans, he’ll be keeping busy.
Fishing with his father and visiting family in California is on the agenda, but the commitment to refining his craft remains a priority. He is one of about 15 players from this year’s roster who have signed on for next season. Still, the volatile realities of the soccer transfer market are ever-present in the back of his mind.
“I’m going to stay busy, read a bunch, try to find ways to improve and build on this season and step it up next year,” Sandoval said. “With this profession, there’s always a chance that this could be your last year with the club, so I always have that in the back of my mind and try to play my best. You never know what’s going to happen.”