Facing what was sure to be an emotional match, New Mexico United (4-1-5) were able to hold those emotions in check to take care of visiting San Antonio FC (3-5-2).
With the return of Devon Sandoval to the starting XI, United wasted no time in putting pressure on SA FC keeper, Matt Cardone. The duo of Sandoval and Kevaughn Frater caused issues for the visitors and opened up an opportunity for Santi Moar. Two minutes in Moar took a shot from outside the box that sent Cardone scrambling, but curled just wide. The opening series culminated with a ninth-minute goal from Sandoval.
In a great series of play, Frater would play the ball forward and behind the back of SAFC Johnny Fenwick. With Fenwick unable to locate it, Frater regained possession and passed over to Sandoval, whose shot from the left side of the box found the back of the net. As the ball went in, Sandoval immediately motioned to the armband the club was wearing in tribute to Justin Schmidt and his family.
“We talked about it all week, it was a lot of emotion behind the game,” said Sandoval. “It was for Justin and his family.”
The new club record crowd of 15,023 erupted along with the players on the pitch. The match was off to the start that many expected given the home form of United and the away form of San Antonio.
“We changed our strategy a little bit coming into the match,” said Coach Troy Lesesne. “Having Dev and Kev up top together it caused them (SAFC) some problems tonight.”
After that opening salvo, both sides settled into the match for what was an evenly played remainder of the half. Neither club would put another serious threat on target, and SAFC only managed one shot on target. San Antonio employed a high press in an attempt to disrupt the United flow, and at times seemed to cause some moments of indecision. Despite this, the United play was solid and did not commit any errors against the press.
“At halftime, we talked about wanting to set the tone and dictate the game,” said Chris Wehan after the match. “We let it be known at the start of the half.”
United brought this mindset to the pitch after the break and came out of the blocks running. Sandoval and Frater increased their pressure in the final third, United closed down, made better movements and started finding space on the left. All of this led to Moar and fellow forward Chris Wehan being able to get behind the San Antonio back line.
The seeming indecision that United was facing in the first half disappeared after halftime.
“It’s hot and it at altitude, so we knew if we stretched these guys out in the first half we’d be able to pop the lid off in the second half,” said Sam Hamilton. Lesesne followed this up stating that it was the most complete performance of the season for the club.
All of these factors led directly to the next goal for United. Some excellent link-up plays between Moar and Wehan were able to draw Cardone off his line, and out of the six-yard box, a huge mistake for the keeper. Streaking down the left of the box, Moar was able to slip the ball back to Wehan at the spot. Gathering the ball at his feet, Wehan powered it into the back right corner of the net, putting the hosts up 2-0. The movement from Moar was especially important, as he was able to draw the keeper out and into a poor position.
Minutes later, Wehan would copy Moar’s run up the left. This time, Frater chipped the ball forward and was picked up in stride by the United forward. Taking the ball onto his right foot at the edge of the goal area, Wehan shot from a tight angle, putting the ball into the side netting for a brace and a 3-0 lead. San Antonio spent a lot of time focusing on the left side during the first half and had kept it in check. In the second half, however, SAFC’s road form caught up with them, and United was able to make the left side work.
San Antonio had come into the week after a clean sheet against Tacoma but was unable to carry any momentum from that victory. Throughout the match, SAFC struggled with crosses, unable to even connect on many of them. Coupled with the defensive lapses in the second half, the lack of an offensive effort would doom them. Surrendering only three shots on target United keeper Cody Mizell gave a lot of credit to the guys in front of him.
“It was an eleven man performance, always from the top. Setting our press up high, defending properly and smartly.” In response to the defense effectively keeping San Antonio out of the box Mizell joked, “Who doesn’t want to do anything for a job? It was good. It was a team performance.”
With Justin Schmidt not being with the club due to the loss of his father last weekend, he was not physically there, but the club and the supporters carried him in their hearts.
“We wanted to celebrate Justin the best way, with a full amount of love for him and his family,” said Lesesne. “I think our guys came out and showed what their character is, and really it’s just a special moment.”
In a tremendous show of support for Justin, the club came to the pitch wearing shirts that had been printed with Justin’s #17 on the back and a front that read “We Are United With the Schmidt Family.”
The supporters got involved as well. The Curse handed out 10,000 armbands to fans entering the park and held a fundraiser on Saturday. The public has also donated over $22,000 to a GoFundMe that was set up to support the family.
Man of the Match
Chris Wehan – with his brace tonight and stellar defensive play Wehan was an easy pick for man of the match.
Daniel Bruce made his New Mexico United debut, subbing on for Moar in the 74th.
“I think if you ask any of these guys who they dislike playing against the most in training, its Daniel,” said Lesesne. “He’s the type of player that not only is he very good defensively, but he can create some stuff going forward as well.”
All three goals tonight were scored by former UNM Lobos.
The clean sheet is the second of the season for United and the third suffered by San Antonio.
New Mexico head out on a road trip that won’t see them return to The Lab until June 5th. United have three matches in the next 12 days, the first being on Sunday, May 12 against El Paso Locomotive. They will then make their U.S. Open Cup debut on May 15th at Phoenix Rising.