Highlighting the most compelling lower division teams in the United States, our Descending the Pyramid series continues with New Mexico United, who only needed one season to take the USL Championship by storm.
It all started in a dark, dingy pub in London. Peter Trevisani worked in England, and he kept wondering why his co-workers would wheel televisions into the office or suddenly disappear for two or three hours at a time during lunch. It was the 1998 World Cup, and as a former college American football player from the Boston area, Trevisani wasn’t necessarily up on game. Curious about the hype, he ventured into his local pub to watch England square off against Argentina. He gathered around the grainy television, passed beers back to others, and sang songs he didn’t even know the words to with complete strangers.
England lost the match, and Trevisani felt unexpectedly devastated. He was surprised at the beautiful game’s power to bring everyone together for those 90 minutes. After experiencing that, Trevisani filed it away in the back of his head and returned to work in the U.S. He never acted on the feelings he experienced that day, although he did eventually buy a minority stake in Italian club Venezia FC. A dream lay dormant until he found himself at a crossroads one day, which ultimately led him to create New Mexico United, last year’s U.S. Open Cup Cinderella story from the USL Championship.
Following a successful career in finance, Trevisani decided to take his life in a different direction. During his transitional phase, he played video games and went to a coffee shop every day, like any responsible adult with a young family would do. Six months in, Trevisani still couldn’t figure out what his next move should be, so he made a list. He wrote down five things he loved besides his wife and kids: music, starting new things, health and fitness, immersive theater, and positive outcomes for people.
In that moment it all came together for Trevisani, and he decided to use soccer as a vehicle for positive community change in New Mexico. Now he just needed to come up with a name and a crest. While “United” may be a common trope throughout soccer culture, it’s synonymous with the team’s vision to represent all of New Mexico. Similarly, the crest reflects the club’s intentions to be a unifying and inclusive force for all New Mexicans. The crest is minimalist, with four stripes representing the famous symbol of the Zia Pueblo, a nod to New Mexico’s storied history.
But in order to avoid relying exclusively on the past, Trevisani created a more modern take on the symbol. The number 18 at the top of the crest commemorates the year of the club’s founding, when they started making their own history. The four stripes representing the Zia symbol also puncture the shield, leaving part of it open.
“There’s a break in the shield, and that’s to symbolize there’s a free flowing energy that you’re always welcome to join,” Trevisani said. “You’re always welcome to leave or not support the team. There’s no containment inside the shield.”
New Mexico United has one of the strongest merch games in American soccer, and it’s only going to get better. In their inaugural season the club partnered with adidas as their kit manufacturer, but now they’re rocking with PUMA.
“I love PUMA’s underdog approach — they’re not the big 800-pound gorilla in the market here,” Trevisani said. “They do a lot around creativity. They endorse not just athletes but musicians and artists alike, which is a big part of our club ethos. And I believe right now we are the only team in all of [U.S.] sports that wears PUMA, and I think that uniqueness allows us to go a lot deeper with a company.”
With an in-house design team, New Mexico United took full advantage of the newfound flexibility PUMA afforded them in making this year’s kits. The home kit is a solid black shirt with yellow Zia stripes jetting across part of the lower torso and a yellow stripe running up the shoulder to a yellow collar. Then they essentially flipped the script on the away kits, with a yellow shirt and black Zia and shoulder stripes. While it’s only year one with PUMA, Trevisani anticipates his in-house design team will only get more and more creative with their releases.
Another reason the club’s kits have been selling like hot cakes is their sponsor. Rather than have a more traditional sponsor to maximize dollar value, New Mexico United effectively bet on themselves and their community instead, putting startup art collective Meow Wolf on their shirt. Their exhibit “House Of Eternal Return” in Santa Fe attracts visitors from around the world, making it ground zero for immersive art in the state.
“I think teams are going to realize that what’s on the front of your jersey reflects on you as well,” Trevisani said. “Our approach was let’s really have our kit represent who we are, and let’s go export New Mexico to the rest of the world.”
The beating heart of the club is The Curse, New Mexico United’s independent supporters’ group. The supporters’ group name comes from a historical background, a reference to first New Mexico Governor Lew Wallace’s troubles in dealing with the snakes, cacti, and heat when he arrived to the state. Wallace wrote back to his wife that things which seem to work elsewhere fail in New Mexico.
“We decided to turn it on its head and make it our own, and to tell our opponents essentially what works in your state, what works at home for you, once you cross our borders isn’t going to work here,” The Curse President David Carl explained. “That’s the curse of Lew Wallace.”
Carl, who was a nomadic television reporter before he settled down in New Mexico, is one of the six founders of The Curse. The club initially connected the six founders after they all expressed interest in starting a supporters’ group on their season tickets form, but then left them alone to create what has become one of the best supporters’ groups in North America.
The Curse logo is a classic, with the top of the crest representative of many of New Mexico’s mountain ranges, and a distinctive turquoise checkerboard as the center piece. New Mexico United planned to use turquoise as a main color at one point, but then shifted to their current scheme. The Curse had already released their logo though, so they just decided to roll with it. Now, the turquoise acts as an identifier for supporters’ group members among the sea of yellow and black at home matches.
Match day with The Curse is like no other. The festivities begin with a tailgate four or five hours before kick off, complete with free food, free drinks, and activities like cage soccer and live screen printing. The tailgate is akin to a giant block party, especially on Cinco De Mayo, where thousands flock to the scene.
An hour before the match starts, The Curse and Los Cursitos, a supporters’ group for kids, march into the stadium and do a lap around the field before settling into their digs and giving full-throated support for 90-plus minutes.
“We never sit, we never stop yelling, we never stop singing, ever,” Carl said. “The smoke bombs go off before the match, after every goal, and when we win. And it’s just raucous, it’s crazy, it’s loud. I would not like to be the opposing goalie in front of The Curse.”
For those of you who are in need of #PPE, our amazing partners at Fiesta Auto Group are giving away 2,000 masks to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Get yours today from 5-7p.m. Locations are listed in the image! #somosunidos#communitysupport#bewell#weareunited pic.twitter.com/oWGalTCKSA
— New Mexico United (@NewMexicoUTD) April 30, 2020
With a year under their belt and an organizational structure now more clearly defined, The Curse has hit the ground running in the community. Last season they participated in Prideraiser and also raised money to support the family of player Justin Schmidt after his parents were involved in a horrific car accident. This year, The Curse is partnering with Protect NM to deliver personal protective equipment to healthcare professionals. To incentivize people to donate their PPE, The Curse is re-purposing their tifo material for the year and making masks out of it to exchange.
Off the Pitch
Given that community is of paramount importance to the club, the moves New Mexico United makes off the pitch are unsurprising. Much of what the club does is in the moment, helping to fill the needs and voids in the community, however one of their long running projects involves youth soccer. New Mexico United has a High Performance Program, which serves as a free monthly program for kids to train with the coaching staff and players.
“We just want to have a platform to develop the next generation of professional soccer players because so many players either quit here or they have to move out of state to train,” Trevisani explained.
The club wanted to travel and hold two tournaments with a U-19 team this year, however the pandemic put those plans on hold. Shifting to meet community needs during the COVID-19 crisis, New Mexico United hosted a blood drive out of their front offices, handing out their opening day flags to people who donated.
A huge thanks goes to everyone who made today’s gratitude parade a success!
Our healthcare workers are on the frontlines everyday and deserve the utmost gratitude! Thank you for all you do to keep us safe. You are the true heroes! #somosunidos #weareunited #communitylove pic.twitter.com/hukNlbXBkX
— New Mexico United (@NewMexicoUTD) May 3, 2020
“On the field we don’t know when it’s going to be, but off the field the season kicks off now,” Trevisani said. “Because it’s always about more than soccer.”
The club also recently started a program called Bake It Forward, where they gather names of organizations accepting food and deliver baked goods sent by people from around the state.
“Our role in the community here is to be a conduit,” Trevisani explained. “Soccer’s just one of the vehicles, one of the platforms we use to get our mission across. But our mission goes beyond a sport, and I think you’re seeing it in some of these other initiatives.”
The club also obviously has a great relationship with The Curse, as evidenced by last season’s U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal against Minnesota United. With palpable excitement many fans inquired about attending the match, but the 1,231 miles between Albuquerque and St. Paul proved insurmountable. Until the club stepped in, that is.
Trevisani made an off-handed comment about chartering a plane, which set the wheels in motion. The Curse and a few other local partners worked eight-hour days to make it feasible.
“We chartered a god damned airliner, got hundreds of people to Minnesota, and we took over that wedge of the stadium,” Carl said.
New Mexico United lost 6-1 that day, but Carl had no regrets. “We did not stop singing for 95 minutes, and it was one of the best experiences of my life.”
On the Pitch
New Mexico United plays their home matches at Isotopes Park, a 13,500-seat stadium home to the Albuquerque Isotopes, a minor league baseball team. The club led the USL Championship in average attendance during their inaugural season, in part because of the incredible soccer culture in New Mexico. Thousands of spectators show up for big high school matches, and the University of New Mexico routinely draws nearly 10,000 fans during NCAA tournament time.
But another big reason for the club’s great attendance is their stellar play on the pitch. Trevisani credits first-time head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne with developing a gritty, determined style of play representative of New Mexico.
“For a guy that had never been to New Mexico before interviewing for the job, he completely gets it,” Trevisani said. “And when we’re playing our style of soccer 100 years from now, we can thank Troy Lesesne for bringing that style to New Mexico.”
Devon Sandoval, the hometown hero on the team, perfectly embodies the way New Mexico plays. Sandoval, who plays striker, enjoys the aggressive and exciting style.
Personally, Sandoval emulates Brazilian Ronaldo, Adriano, Karim Benzema, and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. But the 28-year-old Sandoval is quick to point out he’s his own player, able to do whatever it takes to help his team win.
“I can hold it up, I can play in space, I can distribute, I can shoot,” Sandoval said. “I think in the past seven years as a professional, my game’s really grown and evolved.”
In addition to fitting the system, Sandoval also brings a plethora of experience playing for startup clubs. Drafted in the second round of the 2013 MLS Draft by Real Salt Lake, Sandoval made stops at expansion clubs Rayo OKC, San Francisco Deltas, and Atlanta United 2 before returning home. Poetically, Sandoval scored the club’s first-ever goal and the goal which clinched a playoff berth for the team in their inaugural season.
While it’s not clear when the 2020 campaign will resume, Sandoval is using his time to grow as a person and a player, focusing on being even more prepared for the season.
“My mom and sister are working and so my nephew’s here every day,” Sandoval said. “I’m running daddy and uncle daycare every day in the morning until about 2, and then after that it’s time to train.”
Two things will be certain whenever play resumes: Devon Sandoval will be at peak fitness and much better at changing diapers, and New Mexico United will still bring the energy of New Mexicans past, present, and future with them onto the pitch.