Soccer team to get its kicks in Star Center

by Gary Herron - RR Observer

Sports teams have come and gone at Santa Ana Star Center, but later this year, the 12-year-old arena will have a new tenant: the New Mexico Runners.

Although the University of New Mexico men’s soccer team may be on thin ice in the wake of UNM’s athletics department budget woes, the game of soccer seems to be on pretty thick ice, according to team investor and CEO Andres Trujillo, who held a press conference Wednesday afternoon at the Star Center.

“Everybody knows soccer is on the rise here in New Mexico,” he said, firmly believing families in the City of Vision will enjoy this family-friendly, affordable entertainment. “On the heels of the World Cup, I thought I’d ride those coattails, (when) soccer is tied to the brain.”

Trujillo is optimistic enough to bring an indoor soccer league franchise to Rio Rancho, with his New Mexico Runners playing an exhibition game and six regular-season home games in the Major Arena Soccer League 2 in the Star Center. Playing six to a side, including a goalkeeper at each end, the games consist of four 15-minute quarters, with players changing on the fly, as in hockey.

MASL2 is an official developmental league of the Major Arena Soccer League. The M2 and MASL represent the highest level of arena soccer in the world, and combined feature 26 teams across the U.S., Mexico and Canada.

Some may have dubbed the Star Center as “the place franchises go to die.” Former anchor tenants the New Mexico Scorpions and New Mexico Mustangs in hockey, the New Mexico Thunderbirds in pro basketball and the New Mexico Wildcats and New Mexico Stars in football have all come and gone since the Star Center opened in October 2006.

Trujillo firmly believes the interest in what many call “the beautiful game” in Rio Rancho and the West Side, coupled with interest in the World Cup, could be enough to make his team a winner.

Two indoor soccer teams have called Rio Rancho home before: The New Mexico Storm and the Bandidos, around 2004. Both teams played their home games at Blades Multiplex Arenas, now The MAC.

Rio Rancho City Councilor Jim Owen, on hand for the press conference and the city’s mayor when the Star Center was proposed about 14 years ago, is optimistic this team can succeed.

“I think it’s a really good place to start, because … this isn’t as expensive to run as a hockey team, so the benefits are going to be more proportional,” Owen said. “Just as this is a fast game — and that’s what was appealing about hockey — I think soccer is more (appealing). There’s more people that play soccer.”

Added Councilor Bob Tyler, “This is amazing for the City of Rio Rancho. I think it’s long overdue — I mean, we’ve had (teams here) before — and I hope that this is really successful for the team, Rio Rancho and the Star Center.

“But the more important piece that I like that they were talking about is the partnership with the school district. I think that’s huge; I think that’s gonna be a key player with their success,” Tyler added.

Mayor Gregg Hull was also optimistic about the team’s chances for success.

“The mission of the New Mexico Runners is to provide affordable family-friendly sports entertainment to the community of Rio Rancho … featuring an intense and exciting sports atmosphere,” according to Trujillo, whose father, Edwin, is also an investor.

The players on the roster won’t be paid, Trujillo said, but can use their success on the pitch to further their careers, possibly with the semi-pro Sol team in Albuquerque. He said he hopes to have at least one former Rio Rancho or Cleveland high school standout player on the roster, which could help bring in more fans.

There’s another new soccer team in the area

Earlier this month, the United Soccer League announced it will bring a team to Albuquerque, with the first season starting in March.

The team, which still doesn’t have a name, will play at Isotopes Park in its first season.

“I don’t think it’s going to be any issue at all; their season starts in March and my season ends in March,” Trujillo said.

Additionally, another outdoor soccer club, the Albuquerque Sol, plays from May through July. The UNM men’s and women’s soccer seasons run from August through November.

Check out the website to read the rules of this league or to purchase tickets. Trujillo welcomes calls at 663-7786.