Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval (right) is mobbed by teammates after scoring the first goal in New Mexico United's history on Saturday in a 1-1 draw against Fresno FC. | Photo courtesy New Mexico United
The opening weekend of the 2019 USL Championship season produced plenty of stand-out performances.
Shane Malcolm’s hat trick for Colorado Springs Switchback FC in a 4-1 victory over the LA Galaxy II headlined a group of impressive individual efforts, while North Carolina FC’s emphatic win by the same scoreline over defending USL Cup champions Louisville City FC took my top spot in terms of terrific team displays.
And I’d be remiss to forget the fans – after all we wouldn’t be here without you – who showed up in droves to support historic home openers for four of the league’s expansion clubs and provided the soundtrack to the action across the country while setting record attendance numbers in the process.
However, in my humble opinion, no-one had quite as good of a weekend as homecoming kings Devon Sandoval and Billy Forbes.
Sandoval, an Albuquerque native and University of New Mexico alum, led the front line for New Mexico United in its inaugural match against Fresno FC and produced a moment of magic that he and the 12,896 fans at Isotopes Park won’t forget any time soon.
In the 25th minute, Sandoval took a pass from fellow New Mexico native Josh Suggs and curled a right-footed shot from nearly 30 yards out past C.J. Cochran into the corner of the net, sealing his spot in club history and sending the home crowd into delirium.
“I’ve played in a lot of big games, this one was special,” Sandoval told the Albuquerque Journal after his team’s 1-1 draw. “Extremely proud to be a part of this.”
After netting just three goals in 25 appearances last season for ATL UTD 2, getting off the mark on the opening weekend was likely a big relief for the club’s first signing as New Mexico joined Austin Bold FC as the only two expansion sides to earn points in their inaugural matches.
While I’m sure settling for a draw was disappointing, there’s no doubt that Sandoval’s strike and the electric atmosphere around Isotopes Park will be the memories that stand the test of time amongst the New Mexico United fanbase.
Speaking of standing the test of time, is there a more enduring relationship between a city and player than San Antonio and Billy Forbes?
The Turks and Caicos forward marked his return to San Antonio FC – his third stint in the Alamo City since 2015 – with an energetic attacking display against his former club, Phoenix Rising FC.
After making just 11 starts for the Western Conference champion in 2018, Forbes showed little rust as he completed 85.7 percent of his passes, created two chances and scored a brilliant solo goal late in the first half to give his side a 2-1 advantage. The 28-year-old picked up the ball on the right flank, drove into the penalty area and fired an inch-perfect shot into the top-right corner of Carl Woszczynski’s goal.
“I wanted to score because that’s my former team and I wanted to make a statement, but overall as a team we’re not happy with the result,” Forbes said following his side’s eventual 3-3 draw at Toyota Field. “We felt we deserved the win the game, but it’s the first one of the season and we’re going to learn from it and move on.”
While Jason Johnson’s stoppage-time equalizer for Rising FC – which also happened to be against his former club – left Forbes in a similar mindset to Sandoval, the performance was a promising one for a San Antonio side that missed out on the USL Cup Playoffs in 2018.
That much was echoed by SAFC Head Coach Darren Powell after the match: “Tonight was very positive from our guys. As a group, our players should take a lot of positives from tonight’s performance, and as we continue to improve, I think we’re going to see some good soccer from these players.”
If San Antonio’s homecoming king can continue to produce like he did during his 2017 campaign when he led the club with 10 goals and nine assists, then SAFC should be capable of making some moves when the big dance comes around in late October.