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New Mexico United, El Paso Locomotive make Southwest proud in USL Championship debuts

Fireworks herald the team entrance as El Paso Locomotive FC face OKC Energy in the USL club's inaugural game at Southwest University Park
Fireworks herald the team entrance as El Paso Locomotive FC face OKC Energy in the USL club's inaugural game at Southwest University Park on Saturday. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/El Paso Locomotive FC)

The Southwest certainly showed out for soccer this past weekend.

Three new teams from this growing region of the USL Championship landscape debuted Saturday, with New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive drawing sellout crowds for their home openers. Austin Bold FC, meanwhile, debuted at Cashman Field against a Las Vegas Lights FC team that helped define Southwest soccer support in last year’s debut season and is now reinventing itself (on the field, at least) under new head coach Eric Wynalda.

Four of the top six crowds in the league opening weekend hailed from Southwest sites. According to Soccer Stadium Digest, New Mexico United topped the league with an announced crowd of 12,896. El Paso came in third with 8,324. San Antonio FC drew 8,058 to come in fifth (just below the sellout crowd for the new team in Memphis). And Vegas placed sixth with 8,017, a slight improvement on last year’s average turnout.  

Those numbers all contributed to what the league noted was a 29-percent increase from opening weekend attendance last year and a 55-percent increase from two years ago.

The excitement was particularly palpable in Albuquerque, where New Mexico United earned its first point in a 1-1 draw with Fresno FC. David Carl, a member of The Curse, one of two supporters’ groups for the new team in New Mexico, said, “It was a great start. The atmosphere was electric, starting with the tailgate, where there was food and drink and camaraderie and a bunch of people coming together who had really never met before.”

Carl believes New Mexico United can be a catalyst for unifying people from Albuquerque and points beyond — an ambition the club also revealed in part last month when it announcement the team’s unconventional kit sponsor: Santa Fe’s awesomely-named art collective Meow Wolf, poised to become more of a household name in 2019 via installations its creating in Denver, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C.

Two New Mexico United fans with a drum support their team during its inaugural match against Fresno FC

Two New Mexico United fans with a drum support their team during its inaugural match against Fresno FC on Saturday at Isotopes Park. (Photo/Juan Labreche, Courtesy of USL)

One of the supporters’ highlights Saturday was when The Curse and sister supporter group the Sandianistas marched from the tailgate to the stadium. When they made a loop around the main concourse, some outside fans looked puzzled — “you could see the confusion in their eyes,” Carl said laughing — but others joined in the march because, according to Carl, “they just wanted to be part of something like that.”  

For El Paso supporters with the 8th Notch — their name comes from the “full throttle” setting on a locomotive — Saturday was also a triumph, despite a 3-1 home loss to OKC Energy. After the match, head coach Mark Lowry declared the Locomotive is “a team that will win a lot of games in this league.”

Like their counterpart in Albuquerque, 8th Notch engineered a march to the stadium that picked up unaffiliated fans along the way. Group member Phil Baki said local reporters captured the march as part of their gameday coverage, and the attention’s made more people want to be part of that energy.

“We’ve had 150 inquiries from people wanting to join the group in the first few days after that first match,” he said, adding he saw people wanting to be part of the opening-day festivities turned away at the box office because the venue had reached capacity.

Both groups of fans also got to celebrate the first goals in the clubs’ histories.

Baki said Derek Gebhard’s 15th-minute goal to draw the Locos level brought “an outpouring of joy and excitement” for an already boisterous crowd, whereas Carl called Devon Sandoval’s 25th-minute go-ahead goal “poetic,” remarking, “It couldn’t have been anyone else.”

Sandoval, New Mexico’s first signing, grew up in Albuquerque and played college soccer at the University of New Mexico before embarking on a pro career that most recently included a 2018 season with Atlanta United 2 and scoring in the 2017 North American Soccer League final for the victorious San Francisco Deltas.

El Paso Locomotive FC players celebrate a goal against OKC Energy FC

El Paso Locomotive FC players celebrate a goal against OKC Energy FC in the inaugural game of the USL club at Southwest University Park, Saturday, March 9, 2019, in El Paso, Texas. (Ivan Pierre Aguirre/El Paso Locomotive FC)

Both teams’ fans have May 12 circled on their calendars: when New Mexico United travels to Southwest University Park for its first meeting with the Locomotive.

In the expansive Southwest, the mere 266 miles between the cities make them practically neighbors, and the added dimension of Texas versus not Texas adds some spice to the competitive spirit that’s developed.

The fan bases are already engaging in some banter on social media to fuel the rivalry  — in part, drawing from the strategic decision by New Mexico United to place signage on Solid Waste Management Department trucks picking up garbage throughout Albuquerque.

That’s not the only new Southwest rivalry being forged with the league’s latest additions. Austin Bold FC will debut its new stadium on the Circuit of the Americas grounds March 30 for a match with San Antonio FC. Those Texas cities, just 80 miles away, have a years-long “who’s better” debate that most recently involved both mayors verbally jousting about breakfast tacos.

And while the newly-branded USL Championship league, the second tier of American soccer, has its own trophy for the eventual champion of the now staggering 36-team league, San Antonio FC fans launched a more intimate competition: the “Copa Tejas,” which tracks the results of the four Texas USL Championship teams to determine an annual statewide champion.

Steve Arters, a decade-long member of San Antonio supporters’ group Crocketteers, will chronicle the season on the copatejas.com website starting with RGVFC Toros’ visit to El Paso March 23. The winner will receive a trophy his team is working to create.

“It’s going to give matches between the Texas teams an added edge right away,” Arters said of the trophy, “not only on the field, but in the stands between all the supporters and fans.”

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