Sandy • Long after Devon Sandoval made a serious first impression, long after he'd come into Rio Tinto Stadium as a University of New Mexico student-athlete and bullied his way into the minds of Jason Kreis and Garth Lagerwey, the curly-haired former Lobo prepared for the most important 90-minute span of his young soccer career.
RSL's star forward Alvaro Saborio was out for the first leg of the Western Conference final against the Portland Timbers, leaving Kreis a pool of Robbie Findley, Joao Plata, Olmes Garcia and Sandoval from which to choose two starting forwards.
Findley and Sandoval got the nods, and the 6-foot-1, 22-year-old MLS rookie trapped a cross from Findley, created separation from Timber defender Jack Jewsbury and fired to the far post in the 48th minute of play against Portland.
For most rookies, the first year as a professional athlete often is the most difficult. Not for Devon Sandoval. The guy who incessantly draws wide-ranging comparisons anywhere from Mandy Patinkin's Inigo Montoya in "The Princess Bride," to the title character in "V for Vendetta" to famed masked hero Zorro, is having the time of his life. The 4-2 win over Portland on Nov. 10 was just further proof.
"I told myself I wouldn't be starting unless the coaching staff believed in me," Sandoval said. "Once the game started, I just told myself, 'Connect your first couple passes and the rest will come easy.'"
Much like his first season in Major League Soccer. But it hasn't been due to lucky breaks. Sandoval's laid-back mentality flips when he's on the field trying to impose his will on teammates in training every day in hopes of cracking Kreis' 18 or, perhaps, the starting lineup.
"Ability and mentality," Kreis said. "Ability because he's a good soccer player and a very good finisher of the ball. He likes to hold things up. He's very different than a lot of forwards that we see in our country. There are very, very few forwards produced that play that position that way."
The Enchantment State molded his style of physical play that helped him win two state titles at Eldorado High School in Albuquerque and opened the eyes of Kreis and Lagerwey. First noticed by Martin Vasquez, executive director of RSL's Arizona academy, Sandoval continued to impress the RSL powers-that-be when he was invited to train with the team for 10 days late last June.
"He was a handful back then," RSL captain Kyle Beckerman said.
The influence Sandoval left carried over into draft night Jan. 17. Lagerwey said Sandoval was the last player on their draft board that RSL thought could make their team. So when the chance to snag him arrived, they traded three picks to the Philadelphia Union to move to No. 29 in the second round. Sandoval said he'd hoped RSL would make a move for him, and when they did, it only gave him more incentive to prove his value.
"The thing about rookies is the hardest thing is to go out and do it again," Lagerwey said. "With Sabo's injury, we may as well call on Devon again."
Good things tend to happen when RSL taps on the rookie forward. The club is 10-3-0 in all competitions in which Sandoval has started.
He's scored seven goals in all competitions, and recently produced a postseason performance that won't be forgotten.
"The upside is huge for him," Beckerman said. "He's just a battering ram out there. No defender wants to see him, and he gives it from minute 1 to 90 minutes. And he can score goals, too."
Motivation for Sandoval isn't lacking and never really has been. The rookie has acclimatized to the theory of the team having more power than any one player, adding that being a soccer player from the southwest planted a chip on his shoulder.
"For me, being from New Mexico, no one ever gave us respect," he said. "I was never called up to youth national teams or anything like that, and that always kind of lit a fire under me because I saw these other guys go and I felt like I was just as good or better as they were. I've always felt like I've had something to prove. Soccer is my life and this is what I want to do, so I'm going to do everything I can to be the best."
A closer look
RSL forward Devon Sandoval:
Age • 22
College • New Mexico
Goals • Seven
• Selected 29th by RSL in the 2013 MLS SuperDraft.
RSL at Portland
O Conference finals, Leg 2
Sunday, 7 p.m.
TV • ESPN