Everyone in the park knew what was at stake for New Mexico United before the match started. Win, and United’s chances at making the playoffs were still alive. Anything else and the season was over.
Any time The Preacher’s Daughter Holly Holm shows up to an event, it’s a big one.
United knew they needed help from other matches around the league, and the first that could provide some relief wasn’t going their way. Whether or not the supporters in the stands knew, it was impossible to say. There was an energy about the park that had been missing for some time. That’s not to say that the supporters weren’t here before, but the magnitude of the night brought something extra to it.
The players knew it as well, and their demeanor on the pitch showed it. Both United and Las Vegas Lights FC were flying around the pitch in the opening minutes. For United, their early attempts fell victim to the same malady as the match on Wednesday night. With multiple attempts stopped at the goal line, it appeared that Lights keeper Adam Hobbs was in for a big night. Then the unexpected happened, Hobbs suffered an injury and Lights Head Coach Eric Wynalda was forced to use a sub to bring on Thomas Olsen. Olsen, who started on the bench tonight, had been the Lights number one keeper throughout the season.
After the change, United was able to maintain the assault on the Lights defensive third. With United asking questions of the Lights defense time and time again, it was only a matter of time until the deadlock was broken. In the 37th, Olsen would collide with one of his defenders, leaving Chris Wehan free in the box. A quick touch settled the ball, and Wehan would put the ball into the back of the net on a volley.
“I think it (the first goal) was more of a mistake on their part. But, I think that was kinda the luck turning onto our side,” said Wehan. “This group, we just enjoyed playing tonight. There wasn’t a pressure on us that maybe we felt the last couple of games.”
From that point, it was all about preserving the lead. In this first half, Las Vegas had five shots but were unable to be on target. At halftime, it became clear to the supporters at Isotopes Park that the match in San Antonio had turned on its head, with Colorado Springs coming back from a 2-0 deficit to earn a draw with San Antonio. A cheer rose from the supporters as news spread that all United had to do was win.
For Lights FC the second half didn’t improve, while United continued to control the match. United’s defense was shining, led by Rashid Tetteh. While his stat line doesn’t reflect the impact he had on the match, his ability to keep the Lights FC forwards off the ball and retain possession made a significant impact on the outcome.
While Las Vegas was struggling to find a comeback, United put the match out of reach in the 87th. Super-sub Daniel Bruce would fire a shot on target, that Olsen was lucky to get a hand to. That’s all he would get on it, though, as the ball was still able to trickle away from him and towards the goal. Devon Sandoval would pounce on the loose ball and tap it in for the final nail in the coffin.
“Brucey came in and does what Brucey does,’ said Troy Lesesne. “He’s always ready to play, and that’s all you can ask for from any player, that they’re ready to come in when it’s their time.”
David Estrada would follow up to what Lesesne said, “He’s probably the hungriest player in the squad. The last few weeks he’s deserved the opportunity, he’s one of the best teammates you could have.”
A complete 180 from the match earlier in the year that saw United fall to Las Vegas 5-1, United controlled the match from the outset. The defensive effort that was put together in the first half was even better in the second, allowing Las Vegas to only attempt two shots. The result of the effort was the fourth clean sheet of the season for Cody Mizell.
As matches from around the league hit full time, the playoff picture solidified. United and LA Galaxy II claimed the final two spots in the Western Conference and will participate in the play-in round on Wednesday, October 23.
After the match, Lesesne admitted that maybe he had made a mistake during the match. “I probably made a rookie coach mistake by saying it was 2-2 in the San Antonio match at halftime. We knew the result then, and I thought it would give them a lift to know what was in front of us.”
Player of the Match
Chris Wehan – In a 78-minute clinic on how to play the midfield, Wehan was instrumental in the win for United. With 5 shots, 3 on target, 2 additional chances created and the opening goal, Wehan was a thorn in the side of both keepers for Las Vegas all night long.
Devon Sandoval’s goal in the 87th was his twelfth of the season and created the perfect bookend for the regular season. The UNM and El Dorado alum not only scored the first goal of the season for United but the final goal of the regular season as well.
Now that the regular season has ended, all yellow card accumulations have been cleared. Kevaughn Frater will be available for selection for Wednesday’s match.
The USL Championship playoff clubs are now set for both conferences. The play-in round will take place on Wednesday, October 23rd. With times yet to be determined, the matchups are as follows:
Sacramento Republic FC vs. New Mexico United
Austin Bold FC vs. LA Galaxy II
North Carolina FC vs. Birmingham Legion FC
Ottawa Fury FC vs. Charleston Battery
The winners of each matchup will advance to play in the conference quarterfinals on Saturday, October 26.
“I think we have the most experience of any club this year of a, playing on the road and b, playing in knockout games,’ said Mizell, ‘it’s totally to our advantage and I don’t think there’s much pressure on us. We just have to go and play free and get results.”
Photos courtesy Josh Lane/ New Mexico United