Devon Sandoval considers his soccer comeback a gift.
Seven months after stepping away from New Mexico United to address blood clots discovered in his heart, Sandoval officially re-signed with the club Thursday. He’ll be available to play Saturday when United hosts Phoenix Rising FC at Isotopes Park.
Sandoval, 30, spoke at United’s weekly media conference Thursday, discussing his comeback and the challenges he’s faced since he began to notice a feeling of pressure in his chest late last season. The Albuquerque native missed the final four matches of 2021.
Since then, Sandoval said he’s undergone numerous procedures, both to clear the blood clots and later to have an implant installed near his heart to help prevent any recurrences. His recovery and rehab involved a slew of tests, he said, but the former Eldorado High School and UNM standout received a clean bill of health two weeks ago and resumed training.
“It’s been awesome,” Sandoval said. “I’ve enjoyed being back out there with the guys, and I can’t wait to see everyone at the Lab this weekend. I’ve worked really hard to get to this point where I can step on the field again. To continue playing this game is a gift.”
Sandoval was not sure it would happen. Asked if he ever thought his playing career was over, he said, “Yeah, for sure. I’m always pretty optimistic, but there are some things you can’t control.”
United coach Zach Prince said the club has taken a deliberate approach to Sandoval’s return. The veteran striker has been around the club since preseason, attending training sessions and helping out with United’s academy squad, but Sandoval did not rejoin team workouts until every box was checked.
“We took our time going through all the necessary protocols,” Prince said. “We had to make sure that Dev was not only fit to play soccer but that things were right by his perspective and right by his family’s perspective. Now that we’ve done that, I’m really excited about him being back on the field and back with the group.”
Sandoval was the first player signed by United when the club formed in 2019. He scored NMU’s first goal, its first playoff goal and was named team captain in 2020 and ’21. He remains the club leader in appearances and minutes, and his 25 goals (in all competitions) trail only Chris Wehan’s 30.
Sandoval’s return provides United’s front line with an added dimension. At 6-foot-1, he excels at connecting with crosses in front of the net and is particularly dangerous on set pieces.
“Dev’s one of the best coming in on wide services,” Prince said. “He has the ability to sense where the ball’s going to be, knows how to get to it first and occupies defenders, sometimes more than one at a time.”
Defender Kalen Ryden said Sandoval’s veteran presence is equally important.
“I’m personally extremely excited to have Dev back in the locker room and on the field,” Ryden said. “He’s a loud voice in the team room – in a good way – and just commands respect because of how hard he works.”
Prince, like most coaches, does not reveal his lineup prior to game days, but he said Sandoval will be in the mix for playing time Saturday. Sandoval says he’ll be ready whenever his number is called.
“It’s been a very unusual situation to go through,” he said. “Just the uncertainty was probably the toughest part. But I’ve learned a lot from it, gained some perspective and I feel like I’m better now in every aspect: mentally, physically and spiritually.”