Soccer still has a way to go before winning over U.S. fans in the widespread way football or baseball has, but it’s hard to tell sitting in the stands of the Minor League Baseball stadium the team uses several weeks a year, during and after every New Mexico United home game. The Land of Enchantment’s United Soccer League Championship (USLC) team seems to somehow tap into New Mexican’s inherent desires to stake their collective claim—on anything.
Regardless of how popular the team comes across within the stadium walls, or how rabid its diehard fans are, the team is facing a pivotal moment as the Albuquerque City Council will consider on Nov. 8 whether to start the process of approving a 30-year land lease for a stadium paid for by the team. While not exactly divided on the concept of a stadium in general, the Council voted last month to postpone the decision after a number of panel members expressed trepidation about some of the specifics.
But if the council rejects the new stadium idea, it could mean the end for United, or at least as a sanctioned USLC team.
Threading the Needle
The City Council last month went through rounds of questions about a lease proposal brought to them by Mayor Tim Keller. The proposal suggests that United would cover at least $30 million to build a stadium on a section of the city-owned Balloon Fiesta Park. For its part, the city would take care of needed infrastructure updates to water and sewer lines with $13 million appropriated by the New Mexico Legislature. According to the lease proposal, United would pay $35,000 in rent to the city as well as all parking revenue collected.
If this does not come to pass, United’s status as a sanctioned USLC team could be at risk. In an August news release, the league cited the lack of a stadium as a core reason it was ditching the franchise rights of the San Diego Loyal Soccer Club, effectively ending the team. San Diego is also welcoming a new Major League Soccer team in 2025, which will play home games at a shared stadium located on the San Diego State University campus. When asked about whether the league would require a devoted stadium to stay in the league, a spokesman for USLC directed The Paper. back to the August statement from USL Deputy CEO Justin Papadakis.
“Having a modern, commercially viable stadium solution is vital to our clubs’ long-term success and is a pillar of the USL’s growth strategy,” Papadakis said in the statement. “Bottom line, no matter how well a team performs on the field, having the right stadium situation is essential for all professional sports teams. We are working with our current and expansion clubs to develop soccer-specific stadiums that will ensure a strong commercial foundation for the clubs and give fans a place to call home for decades.”
But even if the lease agreement is approved at the next Council meeting, the deal is far from done. The city’s Environmental Planning Commission would still have to approve an amendment to the city’s master plan—a process that includes community input. During the Oct. 16 Council meeting, a handful of residents who live near the balloon park expressed their concerns about how a new stadium might impact the area, which already sees traffic congestion during the two weeks of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta. If the master plan amendment is approved but later appealed, the Council could end up being the deliberative body tasked with the final word. That process also meant that councilors couldn’t ask some drilled-down questions about the possible deal—causing consternation among a few councilors. One of the major sticking points between supporters and holdouts on the Council were—and likely will continue to be—the what-ifs. Councilor Brook Bassan grilled Chief Administrative Officer Lawrence Rael about what would happen if the infrastructure portion of the project needed more money than what was earmarked by state lawmakers. Rael repeatedly assured Bassan that it wouldn’t.
Councilor Renee Grout said she likes the idea of a stadium but also shared her frustration with being limited in what questions she could ask.
“There are so many questions that I’m not allowed to even ask right now, because it’s going to go before [the Environmental Planning Commission],” Grout said during the October meeting.
Other councilors applauded their colleagues for asking tough questions while also arguing in favor of moving forward with a vote. Councilor Trudy Jones noted that projects like revamping the Albuquerque Convention Center and building the Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park—which United and the Albuquerque Isotopes currently share—were both rightfully scrutinized. But, she added, the Council needs to make a decision soon so city attorneys can start drafting and reviewing an official lease, if the Council approves the proposal.
“This is one of those things that could bring us into the big leagues with one more star on our little piece of paper that we are doing well,” Jones said.
Despite the bureaucracy and hand-wringing that are often hallmarks of City Council meetings, nothing short of full-throated support can be found at United games.
Fans who opt to sit in the rowdy section during games—or matches, depending on your level of purism—are warned by the club itself that things can get intense. There’s no such thing as assigned seats in sections 116 and 118. Casual conversations between fans are traded for noise makers such as brass instruments and drums, and opposing players’ flops (see: over-exaggerated falls) are answered with chants of “¡Pobrecito!” in ways that are inexplicably trademarks of New Mexicans. When a United player scores a goal, the already-energized section erupts even more—to the point that the club offers a warning to families considering joining the pandemonium.
“The supporters are at the heart of our match day experience, and we want the entire United family to be proud of them,” United states on its website. “With that said, it’s probably best for our youngest fans to appreciate them from a different section.”
After the game though, throngs of young fans flock to the front row of the section angling for photos, signatures and even jerseys worn during the game. Players make a point to work down the row, through outstretched, marker-wielding hands obliging nearly every request for their John Hancocks, while also having short chats with each fan. It’s a melee in its own right.
Just after United won 4-1 against the Memphis 901 Football Club and secured a spot in the playoffs, the drill was the same. The noise of the remaining fans all but drowned out the voice of a 6-year-old superfan named Payton who was waving hello to each player and calling most of them by name. Her mother, Miranda Roy, eventually flagged down team owner Peter Trevisani and passed him a hand-drawn piece of work from Payton. Trevisani stopped what he was doing, thanked Payton for the gift and said he would put it with “all the others.”
Roy tells The Paper. that Payton’s “thank you cards” started after Trevisani once spotted her chatting up players after a game and let her onto the field. Roy estimates Payton’s made four or five cards since then and had multiple interactions with numerous different players.
“They all know her name; they don’t know my name,” she says.
Roy says Payton’s connection with the team has only bolstered the youngster’s love of soccer and that their family is hoping the City Council will get the ball rolling on a new home for United.
“It’s great that we can play at the [Albuquerque] Isotopes field, but it does have its disadvantages,” Roy says. “I think, based on the fan crowd and what [players] do in the community, as much as they contribute, I don’t see it being a bad thing.”
The Paper. made numerous requests to interview Trevisani or players about Payton, the team’s impact on Albuquerque and the importance of a new stadium but the organization did not make anyone available.
The 2023 season ended for United when they lost their first and only playoff game to the Sacramento Republic Football Club last month, and so far there’s no public talk of an end for the team, which bodes well for Roy and her daughter Payton. Roy says the connections Payton has made with United players has translated to a drive in the youth league she plays in.
“I just think it’s really cool that the guys will take time to talk to all of their fans. You know, [midfielder Justin] Portillo, [defender Kalen] Ryden, [midfielder Sergio] Rivas, and Peter [Trevisani] will always go out of their way when they see her to say hi, and they’ll stop what they’re doing to go have conversations,” Roy says. “Even the other players, they don’t quite know what to do with a 6-year-old who doesn’t want an autograph or a signature, but they’re always very courteous and say hi, give like a high five or something. We totally love them and what they’re doing for the community. We’re just fans for life.”