ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Teams Faces No. 25 Alabama-Birmingham
They will gather tonight on familiar ground, the Lobos and the Lobo faithful.
And while this will be the first time the UNM men’s soccer team plays at home since its dramatic NCAA Tournament win over Duke in November, this is hardly the first encounter between players and fans.
“They have so much interaction with our crowds over the course of the year,” UNM coach Jeremy Fishbein says of his players. “Summer camps, school visits, clinics. They’re pretty excited to play in front of these people.”
n No. 25 Alabama-Birmingham at No. 8 UNM men, 7 p.m., UNM Soccer Complex
n UNM women at Georgia, 5 p.m.
Fishbein encourages the connection.
“We see our role in the community as being ambassadors for the university, for soccer,” Fishbein says. “And our guys take that very seriously. That’s part of growing up. You learn how to deal with a diverse group of people. You have to be good with kids. You have to be good with adults. And our guys embrace it and love it.
“Because of the players’ hard work, we have been able to develop a great group of supporters, and it continues to grow.”
UNM finished third in the nation in attendance in 2011, averaging 3,749 fans for their 10 home matches.
Of course winning helps, and the Lobos are 76-13-8 at home (10-0 last year) since Fishbein took over the program in 2002.
Tonight the eighth-ranked Lobos (2-1) face a challenge in 25th-ranked Alabama-Birmingham, the defending Conference USA champion. The Blazers (2-1-1) are led by all-conference defender Reed Motte, senior forward Kofi Gyawu, who has three goals this season, and goalkeeper Raphael Ville, a veteran of France’s national youth soccer academy scene.
The Lobos will get a lift from the return of sophomore forward James Rogers, who was suspended three games by the NCAA for misconduct during last season’s tournament.
“Getting him back will be a nice boost,” Fishbein says. “I think James will have a big impact. We’ve got quite a good attacking team, but James brings a little different pace, a little bit different change of direction than anybody we have. He’s a hard guy to stay with.”
Senior goalkeeper Victor Rodriguez, who returned from a two-game suspension in time for Sunday’s win against SMU, also figures large in UNM’s plans.
“Vic’s our guy,” Fishbein says. “It’s good to see him back there in between the goals. I thought he played real well.”
Fishbein expected his Lobos to be cohesive, and he says that’s been true.
“We’ve dealt with a little more adversity than I thought we would,” Fishbein says. “I wasn’t sure what the effect would be not having Vic and James for a few games, but guys have stepped up.”
UNM’s depth provides an interesting challenge for the coaching staff.
“People are fighting for minutes,” Fishbein says. “And it’s a competitive group.”
Even the loss at Tulsa fueled the competitive fires.
“It was a bit of an eye-opener,” Fishbein says. “It’s not completely a bad thing. It’s inevitable you’ll lose. … I was proud of our guys, proud of how they reacted.
“This is a proud team that expects to win every time they stand on the field.”
Such will be the case tonight.
“We’re just excited to be home and play on our field and in front of our fans,” Fishbein says. “It will be great.”
— This article appeared on page D1 of the Albuquerque Journal