Hope ran high for New Mexico United and their supporters heading into the Friday night showdown with Memphis 901 FC. Even on a night with Balloon Fiesta traffic snarling and slowing down entry into The Lab, the supporters were in full voice and United came out hungry. The Black & Yellow rode that early energy to a 4-1 win and a playoff berth.
Win and they’re in. That was the mantra coming off of the win over Rising FC last weekend. Everyone questioned whether or not United could do the improbable and run off three consecutive wins. On Blackout Night, United began with an energy that showed no signs of slowing.
Early on it was apparent that there wasn’t going to be an emotional letdown after picking up two crucial wins. Taking advantage of a foul in the attacking third of the pitch United won a corner after a free kick was put out of play by the visitors in the third minute of the match. On the resulting corner, Justin Portillo delivered one of his best corners in recent weeks that went over everyone before falling to Harry Swartz at the back post in the 4th minute. As the ball came down, Swartz put his right foot to it and redirected the ball on frame where it took a deflection off of Aaron Molloy and into the net to give United the lead, 1-0.
Riding that intensity, it didn’t take United long to pick up another and extend their lead.
In the 13th minute, United would quite literally go end-to-end to add their second. Taking possession deep in their own defensive third, United strung together a series of passes until they found Amando Moreno in the attacking third. Moreno cut back to the center of the pitch before finding Zico Bailey on a surging run. One masterful through ball later and Zico was in a dangerous area. As Bailey cut back to his right, defender Akeem Ward tried to slide through Bailey and win the ball off of him. Instead, the 901 man missed entirely, freeing up Bailey to shoot from just outside the six-yard box and slotting home to extend the lead, 2-0.
After conceding twice inside the opening fifteen minutes, it could have been easy for the visitors to shut down. They didn’t however, and continued to play their way into the match. From the 25th minute on, they held the vast majority of possession. Adjusting to how United was playing and switching to a high press forced United to try and play out of the back more and allowed 901 ample opportunities to regain possession in the midfield. They began looking for crosses from the wider areas of the pitch, but couldn’t seem to put it all together.
Coming out of the half, 901 was intent on finding a goal of their own. They came out strong and won a foul in the 50th deep inside United’s half, and took their time setting up the set piece. Aaron Molloy stood over the set piece and put in a looping ball that allowed Carson Vom Steeg time to get under it and elevate above the other bodies. He was able to put his head to the ball and bash it into the bottom right corner, cutting the lead to 2-1.
Sensing that they were on the verge of something great, United kept looking for an answer to the 901 goal. Just past the hour mark, they went end-to-end and found another goal. This time, the play started with Kalen Ryden in the 61st who sent a ball forward to Moreno, who was nearing midfield. Turning upfield, Moreno played a through ball that found its way between the 901 defenders and into the waiting feet of Greg Hurst. Outpacing everyone around him, Hurst drove at the goal and calmly slotted home with his right foot to restore the two goal lead, 3-1.
Ten minutes later, Memphis felt like they were experiencing deja vu.
In the 71st, United would again start play from deep in their own defensive third. This time, as they were looking to clear the danger from a 901 attack, it was the exact same play as the previous goal with the exception of Sergio Rivas being the middle-man. Ryden to Moreno to Rivas then up to Hurst, who found his brace with a right-footed shot into the bottom left corner and extended the lead to 4-1.
From there it was just a matter of seeing out the remaining time. 901 looked like they might have a few chances before the final whistle, but veteran Andy Thomas was never truly threatened other than the earlier set piece and United clinched their spot in the 2023 USL Championship Playoffs.
Player of the Match
Greg Hurst – It had been a long time coming for Hurst, who hadn’t scored since Saturday, April 29. On that day he had a brace as well, but this one was something else. Two breakaway goals that he showed 100% confidence in scoring put United well out ahead of Memphis and secured the win and the playoff berth.
A whole lot of waiting is what’s next for United. While they did clinch the playoff berth, they won’t know until late Saturday who their opponent in the first round of the playoffs will be. All eyes will be on the Monterey Bay vs Orange County match, San Antonio vs Indy Eleven, Las Vegas vs San Diego, and especially Oakland vs El Paso. Oakland vs El Paso will likely be the determining factor in what seed United ends up with. If El Paso wins, United will drop to 8th and have to play Sacramento. If Oakland wins, United will earn the 7th seed and await the results from the other matches to see who ends up with the second overall seed in the West.