Finally, the fans have come back to the Lab.
For the first time since October 19, 2019, Isotopes Park welcomed in fans to watch a New Mexico United match on Saturday night.
Even hours before the gates opened letting fans in the stadium, the atmosphere at the tailgate was electric as the passionate fan base that led the USL Championship in average home attendance in 2019 was more than eager to once again cheer on their favorite team.
More than four hours before match time, the parking lot at University Stadium, across the street from Isotopes Park, was home to more than 100 fans, most wearing black and yellow.
“I didn’t realize how much I missed it,” said Jake Gutierrez, president of The Curse, the team’s official supporters group. “It’s really special and a little emotional. It’s been a really beautiful thing today. It does feel like we’re getting back to normalcy and that is good. I’ve missed this so much and I know everyone out here has missed this incredibly.”
There was food and drink, friends and family, and soccer fans young and old. Aside from the masks and the social distancing — something the team advised even after the state announced on Friday new, relaxed restrictions on mask wearing outdoors by vaccinated people — the event felt almost normal.
The music was loud and flags were waving. The grills were hot and the beers were cold. After 574 days without a home game, you could almost see the smiles behind the masks on the faces of United supporters.
Among the party-goers was Carlos Tenorio, also known as United superfan “Sombrero Man.”
The gregarious Tenorio spent time at the tailgate catching up with friends and taking pictures with fellow fans. But his eyes lit up when talking about going back into Isotopes Park to cheer on his beloved United.
“Oh my goodness, it feels surreal,” Tenorio said. “It’s almost like a dream, we’ve waited 575 days for this, and we’re back. We’re back tailgating, we’re going back to The Lab, we’re going to be loud. It’s not going to be 15,000 like usual, but it’s going to be something.
“Just us being back is a win, it’s a win for the state, it’s a win for the ownership group to have the fans back and it’s definitely a win for us fans to finally be back home.”
It also wouldn’t be a proper tailgate in 2021 without shots.
Dr. Laura Chanchien Parajon, New Mexico’s Deputy Secretary of Health, was on hand giving out vaccines as part of United’s “Get a Shot, Get a Ticket” initiative. Two hours prior to kickoff, 125 people at the tailgate had received their first COVID vaccination and two tickets to a future home game.
“We’re trying to get the vaccine to where people are,” Parajon said. “It’s added to the convenience. It’s all hands on deck, we’re going to be out here helping out.”
The crowd inside the stadium was announced at 8,647. Ticket sales were limited to 9,000 due to state coronavirus restrictions.
While it wasn’t as packed inside Isotopes Park as usual, the tailgate was as festive as ever.
“It’s crazy, the pandemic kind of tore through us, but it built this anticipation,” said R.J. Montaño, co-founder of The Curse. “We’re even closer, we’re even stronger and we’re excited to be here.”
As fans began to pack up and make the trek to Isotopes Park, a glowing NMU owner Peter Trevisani looked out at the crowd with a smile.
“It feels amazing. When we shut down and had to close our businesses and schools, we never closed our hearts,” Trevisani said. “We stuck together, we supported each other, we healed each other and we loved each other. And now we’re back and I’m really proud of New Mexico.”