ALBUQUERQUE — Get a load of the new kid, out there kickin’ tail and takin’ names.
These new kids, though, they aren’t supposed to be this good, not in a team-sport kind of way.
The New Mexico United are taking a page out of recent hockey history and redefining the way we look at expansion franchises in professional sports. The general rule? Teams fresh out of the nursery are destined to struggle because they’re built from the scraps of older teams. The borderline players who may have had a shot with someone else are suddenly the cream of the crop to the clubs birthing before our eyes.
The United are, in that regard, bucking the trend. New Mexico’s Albuquerque-based franchise is off to a 6-2-7 start with Saturday night’s 3-1 loss at home to Sacramento Republic FC but still own the best record in the United Soccer League’s Western Conference standings. There are 19 regular season matches left, not including whatever’s left in the ongoing U.S. Open Cup that has the United headed to Denver on Wednesday to face the Colorado Rapids of Major League Soccer.
Saturday night’s match at Isotopes Park was, as has been the norm lately, a sellout with an announced crowd of 14,780. Not a blade of grass was visible in the berm beyond right field and only a handful of presold seats in the rest of the stadium sat empty.
Fans have fallen in love with the team, and the team has responded by becoming one of the great success stories in professional soccer.
“I think what Troy did here was come into a situation where he knew what kind of players he wanted and knew how to get them here,” said United midfielder Daniel Bruce, referring to New Mexico head coach Troy Lesesne.
Hired in the offseason to construct a roster willing to come to Albuquerque for a shot at building something out of nothing, Lesesne leaned on his experience on the other side of the country to put together the core of his club. Formerly employed by the USL’s Charlotte Independence, he dug deep into his North Carolina ties to form the United.
Eight current players either attended college or played some level of professional soccer in Charlotte, including Bruce and his former UNC-Charlotte teammate, Tommy Madden. Both of them (Bruce is from England, Madden from Baltimore) had minimal exposure to the Land of Enchantment before signing their first professional contracts with the United. Each played against the now-defunct University of New Mexico men’s soccer team, but never thought they’d see the kind of energy the city has cultivated for the United.
“There is such a unique togetherness about the community, there’s a willing and a want to get behind something that I’ve never quite seen before anywhere, and I’ve lived in a number of places around this world,” Bruce said.
“There are so many teams where I’m from, from the local teams to the big clubs like Manchester United, that the support is often spread out. Here, not only is there just one professional soccer team, we’re pretty much the only team anywhere around here. It makes the atmosphere something I’ve never seen before,” he added.
There’s a lot to love.
The United have the top-two goal scorers in the league with Kevaughn Frater (10 goals) and Santi Moar (9).
They also have one of the premier goaltenders in Cody Mizell, not to mention New Mexico connections like Justin Schmidt, Josh Suggs, Josh Goss, Chris Wehan and Devon Sandoval.
There’s certainly a new-car smell to the team, mixed with plenty of talent and just enough local flair to allow the momentum to build with each passing game.
Team officials are optimistic it will remain this way, savoring every bit of success that comes along.
History has shown that expansion teams are meant to experience growing pains. Even approaching a .500 in Year 1 is considered a rousing success. The NBA’s first expansion team was also its best; the Chicago Bulls made the playoffs the year they entered the league.
The Los Angeles Angels still own baseball’s best winning percentage for a first-year club, winning 71 games.
The NFL’s Carolina Panthers went 7-9 the year they were founded.
The breakthrough came last year in the NHL when the expansion Vegas Golden Knights won three-fourths of their games and made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.
Whether or not the United can continue their run remains to be seen. The toughest part of the season lies in wait; the team doesn’t play at home again until July 31, so the war of attrition will have to be won on the road for the next six weeks.
For now, all signs are positive.