ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – When New Mexico United launched, Chanel Wiese’s experience was that of a proxy.
While her partner was working to establish supporters group The Curse, Wiese was aware of the club’s arrival, but maybe not as in tune as others around the city.
“It didn’t really click for me what was actually happening,” she said recently. “I had never really seen the impact of having a professional soccer team – I was born and raised in New Mexico, so we had never had it – so I couldn’t actually picture what it could do for our community.”
Come the following March, when United hosted its inaugural game to start the 2019 USL Championship season at Isotopes Park, however, everything fell into place.
“From there I completely fell in love,” she said. “It was the first time I had been shoulder-to-shoulder with people that are from my hometown and my community, acting like fools and getting so excited about what was happening on the pitch in front of us.
I had never really seen the impact of having a professional soccer team – I was born and raised in New Mexico so we had never had it.
Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
“It was super-electric and I was lucky that I was able to experience it at the very beginning because it kept growing and growing from there.”
Fast-forward two years, and Wiese isn’t just a fan anymore.
Instead, as the Executive Director of the Somos Unidos Foundation, she’s bringing her expertise and past experiences to serve the communities in Albuquerque and around the state. Wiese was working at the Albuquerque Community Foundation after earning her MBA from the University of New Mexico when she began having conversations with New Mexico’s Owner and CEO Peter Trevisani about setting up a community-focused organization as part of the club’s broader aims.
After those conversations determined what type of organization the foundation would be, they quickly moved to whether Wiese would have interest in taking on the role of leading the initiative. With the blessing of those around her, she made the jump, even if that meant launching a new endeavor as the full potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was coming into focus.
“My first day was April 7, so I basically started working from my couch at home,” said Wiese. “It was kind of scary, but New Mexico United was committed despite the uncertainty of the season to leaning on being a member of our community. Instead of our original plan of having a lot of time to develop the foundation, build it up financially and have a big party and celebration to launch, we just launched it from home.”
Wiese and the club quickly began to work. Before the official launch of the Somos Unidos Foundation, United worked alongside Vitalent to host a blood drive at its team store at the end of March, kicking off an ongoing initiative that has continued to occur every two months. As remote learning was implemented across the state, the Foundation provided distanced learning kits with solar lanterns to families in the Navajo nation.
The way we were able to pivot and do the community work that needed to be done and give people that hope I think we were kind of just starting to share it maybe even before we felt it as individuals, because everybody was really scared and unsure, I think it helped a lot of us as human beings and neighbors as part of the United family.
The launch was low-key by United’s standards, but the immediate impact was noticed.
“The way we were able to pivot and do the community work that needed to be done and give people that hope, I think we were kind of just starting to share it maybe even before we felt it as individuals, because everybody was really scared and unsure,” said Wiese. “I think it helped a lot of us as human beings and neighbors as part of the United family.”
The next step for the Foundation, though, has been more closely aligned with the aim of making soccer part of the fabric of both Albuquerque and the state at large, and opening new doors to provide access that in the past would have been impeded by systemic or financial barriers.
One of those is New Mexico United’s High-Performance Program and Academy Team, which will provide players from around the state the chance to train and compete in a professional environment in a scholarship program that comes at no cost to the players or their families. Since mid-January, the club has announced 13 players that will represent it in the USL Academy League this year.
Another is the Diversity Fellowship, which will see four candidates – two in the front office realm and two in the coaching realm – go through an intensive six-month program that will offer the chance to learn from and be mentored by United’s staff.
“Youth development, access to soccer, be it for youth who want to grow to be professional players or play collegiately one day, I think that’s really obvious, but another way we’ve translated that access to soccer has been with the Diversity Fellowship program and thinking about soccer as an industry and athletics as a whole,” said Wiese. “Looking at our coaching teams and our front offices and noticing the lack of women and people of color working there, especially in comparison to our fanbases. We launched the diversity fellowship program in reaction to that and that’s all under the umbrella of increasing access.
“These fellows coming in are not going to make any of our lives any easier, but that’s not the point. We’re going to be working harder to give them an experience that would rival something that they’re going to get out of a classroom.”
The sporting soundtrack to Wiese’s childhood wasn’t that of soccer fans, but instead the other kind of football.
“I grew up on the NFL,” she said. “Sundays, since the very first memories I have of a Sunday, was always spent watching football from morning to night. My parents were playing fantasy football at that time – on paper, there weren’t even online drafts at that point – so that was my first exposure to the beauty of sport and the excitement it can bring to people, even if you’re not at the field yourself.”
The camaraderie that came from being part of a team was part of her own life, too. While maybe not the most athletic – “I kinda have two left feet,” Wiese said with a laugh – the connection that sport creates stayed with her throughout high school. She even found her own niche after an ankle injury playing basketball, turning to bowling, in which she found a more natural aptitude than in prior endeavors.
“I recognized there was a little bit of talent there and I did some good stuff with bowling until I graduated,” said Wiese. “I played on my high school bowling team and competitively a little bit and worked at the bowling alley all at the same time, so that was sort of my sport of choice at the end of my high school career.
“I rolled a 269 one time, and that was kind of a fluke given my average was around 175, which was decent for a girl at that age in high school. I had all of the gear, I had bowling shoes where you could change out the heels depending on the conditions, so that was fun.”
That sense of camaraderie has been present for Wiese since she joined United, too. New Mexico’s diverse leadership group at its origin – including current Rio Grande Valley FC President Ron Patel and FC Tucson President Amanda Powers alongside Trevisani – brought with it a different approach to team building when it came to the new club’s front office. Establishing that culture early has resulted in a commitment to diversity that Wiese believes has helped the club immensely.
I grew up on the NFL...so that was my first exposure to the beauty of sportand the excitementit can bring to people, even if you’re not at the field yourself.
The daughter of San Francisco 49ers fans as a child growing up in Albuquerque, Sundays at the Wiese house were filled by watching the NFL on television. | Photo courtesy Chanel Wiese
“It’s been an incredible blessing, starting with that baseline that the team has been built on,” she said. “Getting past the baseline for colleagues that diversity, equity and inclusion is important, we’re there. We’re at the table and we understand that’s important, and I think that’s allowed us to get deeper with our community because we’re not battling so much with one or two women, or one or two women of color trying to still work on the inside.
“We have been able to be quick movers in building relationships with our community because we’re already a diverse team ourselves – which I can’t speak to, how much effort and purpose it took to build that way. From where I’m sitting now, it seems like it happened really naturally, and as a part of the magic of New Mexico United and the people that it’s chosen to drive itself with from Day 1.”
While that’s the case, the commitment to diversity at the club that can allow it to reflect its community and fanbase is one United continues to work on daily. Before Wiese’s arrival and the launch of the Somos Unidos Foundation, community outreach was part of everyone’s job description, which provided a platform for Wiese and former player David Estrada – who now serves as a Community Relations Manager for the Foundation – to build on.
New Mexico United has introduced a Diversity Fellowship program in 2021 in both its Front Office and Coaching Staff with the aim of opening new doors for those in underrepresented communities in the sports industry. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico
Wiese believes having the pillar of community outreach from a club’s inception – or integrated into a club’s philosophy following its launch – is an essential step for any club to take, especially for those who are looking to make additional moves in the future.
“I don’t think that’s something you can really skip,” she said. “I don’t think you can go from being unengaged with your community to hiring somebody to start a foundation or a non-profit, or calling somebody your Chief Community Officer and now just declare that you’re now part of the community and you’re a purpose-driven club.”
Whatever United does, it’s with the idea of re-earning the trust and social currency that New Mexico fans have entrusted to it over the past three years.
“I see the Somos Unidos Foundation’s launch – which was just in May 2020 – as a big message to our community that we’re willing to double down on the work that’s been done since Day 1 to re-earn that trust over and over with our community.”
When the Diversity Fellowship was announced by New Mexico United in June 2020, the club reached out to the USL to see what potential support it could offer graduates in finding positions within the league upon their graduation, either at existing clubs or in expansion markets.
As Wiese’s conversations with league officials went on, however, the question turned to how United’s initiative could be modeled for the use of every club in the Championship, League One and beyond.
“What that question ended up resulting in was the USL asking us to write a playbook on how to start a diversity fellowship program, provide the curriculum and guidance on how this can be replicated,” said Wiese.
The request – which would help the league’s own efforts to open new doors at clubs across the league and within its own organization – was quickly accepted by Wiese, who believes aside from the path United’s Diversity Fellowship graduates follow into the sports industry and coaching ranks, a true marker of the program’s success would be its adoption at clubs and businesses elsewhere.
noticing the lack of women and people of color working there, especially in comparison to our fanbases. We launched the diversity fellowship program in reaction to that.
It’s unquestionable that the initiative laid out by Wiese and the Somos Unidos Foundation is needed. As of March 1, there was only one Black American in a Head Coaching position – Michael Nsien at FC Tulsa – in the Championship and League One. The past summer’s campaigns for racial equity have seen many statements of support issued by clubs across many leagues, but not the tangible progress that could have been hoped for in offseason hiring processes.
With a similar aim, the USL also launched the USL Impact Committee, which over the past month has begun to bring together representatives from Championship and League One clubs, league executives, and members of the USL Black Players Alliance to try and find tangible means to improve practices and open new avenues for underrepresented communities.
Wiese is serving as the Chairperson for the Impact Committee, which is currently working on several projects that it hopes will be implemented by the league and clubs in the coming season. The aim is to turns words into actions, and at the same time create benchmarks for progress that can be clearly defined as new programs and ideas are put into effect.
“[We want] to give ourselves really good checkpoints to know that the impact is happening,” said Wiese. “Because we’re all accountable to each other by being in the same room, we want to keep communicating that progress and knowing what works and what doesn’t work a couple of months at a time.
“I know every sub-committee and the Impact Committee as a whole is committed to knowing what it looks like from the individual standpoint – what does it look like to be a successful member of this committee? – to what does it look like to know that these projects, once introduced, are something clubs can do on some pieces, or must do on other pieces. How are we going to track that and know the impact that it has had across the different people we’re accountable to?”
In addition to her role as the Executive Director of the Somos Unidos Foundation, Wiese has this year begun her role as the Chairperson of the newly-created USL Impact Committee. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
As the Impact Committee’s first Chairperson, Wiese is aiming to not only have the tough conversations that can drive progress but also find the path that can make the USL and its clubs better in the short-term and the long-term.
“We’re past the point of platitudes and being able to have these conversations to only a certain extent,” said Wiese. “It requires a diving in and an openness and if New Mexico United and other clubs can play a convening role in their communities, I think if we drill down one layer, my role is to convene and to bring the right lessons to the table and listen and facilitate the impact, so when people have ideas, we can try to move from an idea to an action as quickly as possible, and as thoughtfully as possible.”
As she walked out of Isotopes Park after New Mexico United’s inaugural game, the euphoria of what had just taken over beginning to subside, and a nervous thought came into Wiese’s mind.
At home or on the road, Chanel Wiese carries the flag for her club and her home state.
“My heart was on fire and I was in the clouds, a little piece of my gut was wondering, ‘is this going to last?’” she said. “If you hadn’t been to that game, I was wondering if people were going to understand everything that was there, so I was worried, ‘how are we going to capture this magic and ensure that this is something that can survive?’ because we’ve seen a lot of things come and go.”
Nicknamed the Land of Enchantment, New Mexico hasn’t always maintained its hold on those who were born and raised there with young professionals moving elsewhere in the country to pursue their careers. That could have been true for Wiese, too. As her college days at the University of New Mexico began to draw to an end, the debate among her peers and within herself as to where her future lay was certainly up in the air.
“In my younger years, the will they, won’t they of all my friends and peers in business school, will they or won’t they stay in New Mexico or Albuquerque,” said Wiese. “The decision to stay was a lot more controversial at the time than the one to leave.”
Through United and the Somos Unidos Foundation, Wiese’s decision now seems remarkably prescient. Following her first love of philanthropy and community impact through a pair of political campaigns to the mentorship of Marisa Magallanez at the Albuquerque Community Foundation, to now overseeing a key part of what she hopes will become a beacon in her home state, she is making a mark both in her hometown and on a broader scale.
“Coming full circle and seeing this huge reason for people to stay and for people to fall back in love with our community has truly changed my life,” she said. “Having the opportunity to be part of it from a professional standpoint, getting to do the work I thought I would have to do as a passion project or someday when I’m done working in business or politics – where I would get to work in philanthropy as a retiree – getting to do it now has been the biggest honor of my life.”
Having the opportunity to be part of it from a professional standpoint... has been the biggest honor of my life.