Less than a month before the start of last year’s college season, the University of New Mexico announced that, due to ongoing budget deficits and Title IX concerns, the 2018 season would be the final one for its nationally prominent men’s soccer program. This decision to cut soccer created a maelstrom of debate and controversy. The state’s politicians (among others) got involved. But for the Lobos players and coaches, there was still a season to play. This series is an insider’s deep dive into that final season, and the story of a team fighting for a proper ending. Be sure to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.
“You’re in a strange spot, but that’s OK,” Fish says in the team’s first meeting after the FAU win. “It’s good to test yourself. That’s life.”
Mike has mixed feelings about the team’s progress. “I’m glad for the result,” he says several times. But the effort level concerns him.
“We started off better than we ever have, but once we got that second goal, we faded away.”
The next game is another big opportunity. St. Mary's College comes to Albuquerque with an undefeated, 9-0 record and a No. 10 national ranking. “This place has seen a lot of big ass wins,” Fish reminds the Lobos as they head to the practice fields.
The walk to the practice complex is about a half mile—across a parking lot, up a sidewalk, between two rows of adolescent cottonwoods, towards the looming Sandia Mountains, and through the University of New Mexico football complex.
Kelly leads warm ups. After twenty minutes, he turns the guys over to Mike. “Get a sip,” he reminds them first. It’s still hot.
The team focuses on touches and tempo. Much of the pre-SMC practice is spent working the three-team possession drill. The point is for the outside teams on the small grid to control the ball and get x number of touches before delivering it, through the middle group, to the team on the opposite side of the field.
The Lobos love this drill; it has plenty of touches and plenty of competition.
But Billy has an objection right from the start on this day: “Kelly,” he says. “Every single day you’ve started me in the middle,” he deadpans. “And I am not OK with it.”
(Billy Jones, sophomore from New Zealand)
The guys compete and fight. While the passes are rarely as crisp as the coaches want, the effort is good on this day. The FAU win has lightened the mood considerably.
Practice ends with Fish, again, addressing the team. He’s leaving no stone unturned; his “more is more” philosophy is on full display.
“If you’re a starter, be great knowing the guy behind you really wants to play,” he says. He speaks from the heart, about empathy and commitment, for 10 minutes. While he does, Bailey, the straps of his penny jersey resting on his ears, slowly sidles up in front of Taylor.
With Taylor stuck between several bunched in teammates, Bailey gradually puts his cleated heel down on Taylor’s toes. Bailey digs in. Then a bit more. Taylor, however, shows nothing. Instead he takes the challenge. He keeps eye contact with his coach.
Finally Fish finishes. Taylor escapes. Bailey’s impressed with his fellow sophomore’s restraint. “I’ve trained him to be mentally tough,” Bailey concludes with a genuinely satisfied smile. He heads back down the hill towards the locker room.
After a storm yesterday, the game time temperature is noticeably cooler for the SMC game.
As always, the last thing the team does before heading for the field for a game is watch a highlight video. “Hell yeah Champ!” the boys yell as it starts—giving credit where credit is due. The video ends with a simple Lobo commandment: “WIN AT HOME.” The Lobos always have.
After a shaky national anthem, the starters take the field. Fetterly is in goal for the third straight game. Omar, the team’s leading scorer, continues to start the game on the bench.
The first half is a nothing affair. 0-0.
(The Lobos head for the hurdles garage for halftime.)
The Lobos retreat to the hurdles garage at the edge of the track that they use for their halftime talks. Since there’s no bathroom, several of the starters make a detour to the fence line on their way. The players enter through a partially rolled open garage door. They sit wearily on a couple of metal benches waiting for Mike and Fish.
Fish catches his head on the door on his way in. The guys let out a collective gasp. Momentarily stalled, Fish checks his head for blood. There’s none. He shakes away the cobwebs and reengages quickly.
“Take. Their. [expletive]. Energy.”
The Gaels are an experienced team that won’t make mistakes, the coaches warn. Again, it will just be a moment or two. Mike tells the guys to watch for gaps during transition. “We’ve got to be more disciplined and we’ve got to play in their half,” he says.
The Lobos remain mostly on the defensive during the second half. The minutes wind down. Taylor gets more aggressive and creates some opportunities. Both teams seem to be flagging a bit down the stretch.
Then, again, it happens.
With 20 seconds left before the end of regulation, there’s a scramble in transition. Fetterly is drawn out. A quick interior SMC pass leads to the game winner. Bottom left. 1-0 to the visitors.
“That about as tough as it comes,” Fish tells the Albuquerque Journal reporter.
Long after the game is over Omar stands alone on the field. He did not play in the second half.
The St. Mary’s game is the first of three home games for the Lobos over the course of eight days. Such stretches are the curse of college soccer.
If this isn’t hard enough, the Lobos show up to practice on Friday to find Fetterly peddling slowly on the exercise bike. He has torn his labrum. He is done for the season.
Ford retakes the keeper position.
On Saturday, the Lobos host Florida International University at 11 a.m. The game has been pushed into the morning to accommodate the evening’s homecoming football game.
The parking lots around the soccer stadium are full with tailgating football fans. When the soccer game starts, however, starts at 11 there are only a few hundred diehard supporters in the sun-drenched bleachers.
FIU strikes first, but the Lobos answer back with two first half goals. They enter the halftime shed up 2-1.
“Don’t underestimate this team for a second,” Fish preaches. “They have guys who can score goals.”
“The first 10 minutes are key,” Fish offers as a final reminder. The Lobos head back to the field.
It takes FIU less than two minutes to tie the score. 2-2. Just a couple of minutes more pass before another. 3-2 FIU. A sense of dread sets in. Not again.
“You got to bring the energy,” Bill yells from the back line. But it does no good. Santiago Patino, who will be drafted third overall in the January MLS Superdraft, again breaks between the Lobos back line and scores. The game ends 4-2.
This time it’s Fish left on the field, hands on hips, as the stands empty.
With just three days until a game again Loyola Marymount University, the coaches dig in. When the players arrive in the team meeting room on October 1, at 8:30 a.m., they barely get to settle in their seats.
“Quit feeling sorry for yourself,” Fish yells. He’s livid at the slumped shoulders and downcast glances he sees in front of him. He’s barely in control.
“Get the [expletive] out and come back in like you’re ready to go,” he yells.
The guys file out. Unclear just how far they’re supposed to go, they logjam outside the door. It’s not far enough. “All the way to the locker room,” comes the command. For the next seven minutes, Fish’s voice echoes through the hallways of the athletic complex. Finally the team trudges back to the meeting room to try it all over again.
“I don’t want to look out and see a beaten group,” Fish says, a bit softer now. He knows the pressure they’re facing. But there’s still a chance to make something of the season. “Be excellent today. Be excellent tomorrow.”
Mike gives his scout of LMU: “Typical California team. Give them time and space and they’re pretty good.”
On the practice field the day before the Lobos host LMU, the ball issue surfaces once again. Champ has found two balls and added them to the bags. So now there are 41 balls out at practice.
This doesn’t add up. Just as Fish is turning to Nick Williams, Puig jumps in. He has a theory. Maybe, he speculates, two of the balls got together during the season and had a baby or two. “That’s the answer,” he concludes.
Fish considers the possibility. But, he says, if a miraculous conception did happen, there should be a size discrepancy: “They’d be little balls—like size 3s—at this point,” he says. Finally, with a grin, he lets it go.
Thus the ball saga keeps growing.
The LMU game starts poorly for the Lobos. They give up a goal midway through the first half. The New Mexico attackers generate hardly any opportunities on the other end.
At halftime, Mike, who almost always focuses on strategic adjustments, tries to reach his wounded team. “This is not about tactics,” he says, calmly but pleading too. “Your biggest challenge is putting the last 10 games behind you and focusing on this 45.”
The guys listen. There’s still life here. Immediately the offense gets going. They get two quick shots on goal. Then two corners. Finally, Nick Taylor breaks through. Finding some space on the right wing out of transition, Taylor uses his patented, left foot dribble—dribble, tap, tap, wait…SHOT. He finds the bottom left corner. 1-1.
The Lobos nearly score again two minutes later. Then, however, comes the punch in the gut this team always seems to find.
Antoine, always a scrapper and already having received one red card during the exhibition season, scuffles with the LMU goalkeeper. The refs see an elbow thrown. Red Card.
The Lobos have to play a man down through the rest of regulation. In overtime, LMU gets a penalty kick. The foul comes against the steadiest of the Lobo defenders, Tom Smart. It happens just barely inside the box. But no matter, the ref calls it; LMU converts the PK. The final: LMU 2, New Mexico 1 in overtime.
At the first Board of Regents meeting to consider cutting sports, one soccer supporter showed up with a sign: “Can we stay if we call it futbol?”
The sign captured an interesting dynamic: While it’s possible to be a fan of both soccer and football, it’s rare.
On campus throughout the fall, there are murmurs against Bob Davie and his gridiron squad. “Our faculty probably would have voted to cut football,” Stokes says, with a hint of exasperation at the impracticality of the suggestion.
A quick look at the list of Division I soccer national champions over the past 25 years reveals the basic soccer/football split in college athletics.
NCAA Division I Men’s Soccer National Champions since 1995:
North Carolina (2)
Notre Dame (1)
St. Johns (1)
Wake Forest (1)
On this list only Notre Dame qualifies (and they really make it over the bar) as a football school. UCLA and Stanford have had some success on the gridiron, winning five Rose Bowls each over the past century.
Otherwise, however, to be a soccer champion means coming from a school with a rather weak football team. Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, and Wake Forest are traditionally Big 10 and ACC football bottom dwellers. Akron and UConn have FBS football programs, but just barely. UCSB and St. John's quit fielding football teams in 1992 and 2002 respectively.
After losing three straight at home, the Lobos continue their season in the heart of football country: Alabama.
Practice begins at noon on Friday October 5, at the University of Alabama, Birmingham’s football facility.
There is an irony here. UAB in November 2014 made the controversial decision to cut its football team, primarily for financial reasons. The move sparked outrage, so much so that the school decided to conduct a second round of studies and evaluations. Andy Schwartz, a noted sports economist (who has calculated that the UNM decision to cut sports won’t save the school the $1.1 million it is projecting), led the take-two task force.
In June 2015, UAB changed its mind. Having secured more than $17 million in new donations, the school reinstated its football program. The Blazers football team began play again in 2017. They did so housed in a new administrative building and with the benefit of a new indoor/outdoor practice facility.
This facility is where the Lobos practice on this sultry Friday afternoon. Goals are pushed onto the turf football field. On this front, Ford is offended: “Soccer is a game on grass,” he declares.
(The Lobos practicing at UAB’s new football facility)
At the end of practice, an impromptu kicking contest breaks out. Football style. Puig has found a football in one corner of the complex and bangs a couple of kicks through the uprights from 30 yards.
Later, the team heads to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. This is something Fish and Kelly planned weeks in advance. Fish wants the guys to grapple with issues of diversity and racism even as they’re preparing to handle for UAB’s soccer team.
“I’ll be respectful of you. You to me,” the tour guide says at the door. While certainly many members of the team would have preferred an afternoon in their rooms, watching TV and passing the hours with their phones, they engage in the history of Jim Crow in the United States. It’s an afternoon well spent.
For dinner, the team heads to Café Dupont—a fine dining, “slow food” establishment. According to AL.com, Café Dupont “continues to define Birmingham’s food scene years after opening.” It’s a far cry from the usual places haunted by traveling college athletic teams.
The Lobos dine there because the establishment is owned by Grayson Dupont’s father.
The menu starts with Sesame Crusted Ahi Tuna and ends with sugar dusted Beignets. When the chef comes into the restaurant’s private, upstairs dining room to great his son and the rest of the Lobos, he asks: “How many of you see something on this menu you’ve never had?” Almost everyone’s hands go up.
It’s a fine evening, filled with laughter and exquisite food.
The only drawback to the farm to table evening is the portions. They’re small. And so several Lobos trek out to a Chipotle near the hotel a few hours after leaving Dupont’s.
Finally, after two nights at the Birmingham Downtown Courtyard Marriott, it’s game time. UAB enters the game winless in four C-USA contests.
Perhaps it’s an omen when Nick Taylor blows out the side of his Nike cleats (ala Zion Williamson) early in the game at UAB’s still under construction BBVA Compass complex. “Nike owes you 200 bucks,” says one of his teammates.
Roughly halfway into the first period, there’s an apparent handball on Bailey. The Lobos pause, waiting for the whistle. The Blazers do not. UAB scores to take a one goal lead into halftime.
Fish is calm at the break. “Get the first one,” he urges. “The goals are going to come.” Mike, on the other hand, does not address the team at all. Instead he goes from player to player, offering words of encouragement.
In the second half, nothing goes right.
Ford deflects a catchable shot right back to an attacking Blazer. 2-0. Eight minutes later, Bailey loses possession just past midfield. The stealing Blazer takes the ball and dribbles it, nearly unimpeded to the top of the box where he fires it into the left bottom corner. 3-0. Then, with 8 minutes left, the Blazers use a long throw in from their own half to get the ball into the Lobos box. From there it takes just one move for the Lobo defenders to fall away. A shot off the post caroms to a waiting white shirted Blazer. 4-0.
The bottom has fallen out.
The ride back to the hotel in Fish’s van is tense and moody. When Ben and Elijah start a conversation about salt-free pretzels, Fish immediately shuts it down.
“I feel sorry for the guys,” Fish tells a reporter who’s called looking for an update. “And that’s not a good thing for a coach to feel.”
For the Birmingham kid, Grayson, the trip could hardly have gone much worse. His team was humiliated. Sure Grayson played 52 minutes off the bench, but the Lobos managed only one shot on goal in the contest.
Several hours after the game, Grayson is sitting in a Waffle House waiting to meet up with his father. “Something has to change,” he says, baffled. “Sometimes you just need to lump it up there and see what happens.”
But at least there’s the Waffle House. While his father might be the chef at one of the city’s finest restaurants, Grayson is a Southerner through and through. “Just the smell makes me feel better,” he says as he orders a chocolate milk.
There are still four more conference games to play. The Lobos likely need at least a win and tie to advance to the Conference USA tournament. This is the new goal. In 2016, after a middling conference season, the Lobos won the conference tournament in order to advance to the NCAAs. So the Lobos know it can be done.
With the University of South Carolina coming to town, the Lobos have a prime opportunity to get a win. USC is winless in conference through four games.
As always though, there is a distraction for this team. A showdown between Fish and the athletic department over whether the program will be allowed to have a spring season (a strange breed in college soccer) results in a contentious post-practice meeting three days before USC.
The USC game starts at 5 p.m. on October 13. The semester is halfway over.
The team’s chances of a successful season are on life support, but here’s the obvious reality in watching the team warm up: There’s still joy here. The Lobos sprint and slap backs; they revel in the chance to play college soccer. A sanitized version of Drake’s Nonstop bounces off the bleachers.
“90 minutes for each other,” Fish says as he sends the team out.
“Yes, sir!” the Lobos respond in unison.
The Lobos are down two of their three seniors: Antoine is serving the second of his two game suspension for a red card. Simon has tweaked his ankle. That leaves only Dorsey.
The Lobos score first. Grayson hits a one-timer home. It’s his first score of the season. The Lobos take the lead into halftime.
“Here’s the thing for me,” Fish says. “We don’t lose another 50/50 ball. Don’t let them breath.”
The lead disappears at the 73-minute mark. The Gamecocks use a throw in to create a scramble. 1-1.
The sense of dread is palpable in the stands. Not again.
Fortunately Dorsey, the last senior standing, comes to the rescue. With just a few minutes to play in regulation, he takes a cross from Taylor and heads it into the back of the net. Goal New Mexico! Dorsey sprints for the corner with his arms lifted skyward.
This time the minutes tick off the clock like they’re supposed to. Victory. Finally.
The Lobos gather at the rail. “Whew, we needed that one,” Mike says wearily. Ford made a couple of huge saves down the stretch to preserve the win. His parents great him with hugs. His mom has tears in her eyes. “It’s been a tough go…” she says, before faltering.
Two days later, on October 15, the NCAA transfer portal opens. Almost all of New Mexico’s players enter their names; they begin receiving emails from interested coaches elsewhere almost immediately.
“Where’s Nick Williams?” Fish asks on a cool morning, on the practice field, a couple of days after South Carolina and just a few hours before the team leaves for Lexington, Kentucky.
(Early morning practice before heading to Kentucky)
Fish scans the group. Finally Nick Williams raises his hand. “Right here.” Everyone knows where this is going.
“I was down in the locker room and I counted 39 balls…” Fish challenges.
“No. There are 40,” Nick Williams cuts in. He’s having none of this. “We can count them right now”
“Ooooh,” the guys respond, amped up. Then they chant: “Count them! Count them!”
“It’s a matter of 11 balls in one bag and 9 in another,” Nick Williams explains.
Fish pauses, then smiles. Then he nods OK. Nick Williams nods right back. The guys cheer. Score one for Nick Williams.
The Kentucky Wildcats are ranked No. 3 in the country. As a member of the SEC conference, Kentucky has an athletic budget three times as large as New Mexico’s. They are led by JJ Williams who will sign a Generation Adidas contract and go 18th overall in the 2019 MLS Superdraft. They team plays at the gleaming Bell Soccer Complex. “This is a pro set up,” Champ says as he walks out onto the field before the game. “This will do,” Aaron concurs.
The New Mexico-Kentucky game is a rare Sunday contest. It is sent for an 11 a.m. kickoff on a chilly, bright Sunday morning.
“This is a great challenge,” Fish says in the final minutes before the game. “Control the controllables. Make them play soccer…then we’re better than they are.”
He’s concerned that everyone has the right studs in their cleats. “The field is Bermuda with over seeded rye,” he says.
“Now we’re getting a bit of agronomy,” Kelly whispers.
Unsaid is the fact that a win against Kentucky would go a long way towards salvaging this disappointing season. It would give the team some positive momentum heading into the conference tournament.
(The Lobos warm up before their match with the University of Kentucky)
The Lobos take the field in their all red kits. They look composed and even a bit regal. The guys brings a dose of New Mexico pride everywhere they go.
Less than 17 minutes into the game, Kentucky has scored four goals. FOUR. It’s as if all the pressure and negativity of the season have congealed in one time and place. The Lobos back line is shattered.
Antoine, back from his suspension, gets a goal before the half ends. His celebration is muted. Yes, it’s the first goal Kentucky has given up at home all season, but it doesn’t mean much in light of the four scores that came before it.
The locker room at halftime is morbid. No one can remember being down this much, this quick. A few players offer up a curse, but mostly it’s just quiet.
Fish doesn’t yell. “You’ve got to reset right now,” he starts. “You’re going to find out what you’re about.” Then there’s some practical advice: “If you can’t connect a pass, kick it up ahead.”
This is a shocking tactical place for New Mexico to land. Fish has always preached playing possession soccer—admiring programs like Akron, UCLA and Wake Forest. He abhors “chunk and chase” soccer. But just in case the guys missed it, he says it again: “If in doubt, put it in behind them.”
The second half is no better. Kentucky gets two more goals. The final score is Kentucky 6; New Mexico 1. It is the worst loss in Fishbein’s 18 years at the University of New Mexico. It’s the most lopsided defeat in Conference USA during the 2018 season.
“The game against Kentucky was the worst thing ever,” says Grayson.
“We were just on our heels…” says Ford, searching.
“I can’t remember that ever happening,” Tom says of being down four goals so quickly.
“We were just terrible,” Omar concludes.
The coaches and players stumble into the locker room afterwards. “I can’t give you guys any advice on how to handle it,” Fish says afterwards. “Today it sucks.” His talk peters out after just a couple of minutes. “At the end of the day, there’s no tactics that’s four goals in 20 minutes,” he says. “Let’s not let ourselves off the hook.”
With that, the Lobos shower and get back into their suits. The team is headed straight for the airport in order to fly back to Albuquerque.
“Make sure this place is cleaned up,” Fish says as he exits the locker room.
Ryan Swanson is an Associate Professor at the University of New Mexico. He studies the role of sports in America, and is the author of the recently released The Strenuous Life: Theodore Roosevelt and the Making of the American Athlete.