Players and fans alike were thrilled by the first victory in New Mexico United's history on Wednesday night at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – It was never going to be easy.
At halftime, it looked like New Mexico United was going to cruise to its first victory in club history, two goals to the good against Tulsa Roughnecks FC in front of another raucous crowd of 8,330 fans at Isotopes Park. Santi Moar’s third goal of the season in the 20th minute brought all of those and maybe some watching on ESPN3 to their feet, the exclamation point in a tremendous opening 45 minutes.
“You saw United football in the first half,” NMU goalkeeper Cody Mizell told the Albuquerque Journal’s Noah Seligman. “Group effort from all the guys in the back line to the guys in the midfield.”
But as we’d seen in the first two weeks of the 2019 USL Championship regular season, where no expansion side had yet taken victory, the three points wouldn’t come as easily as Devon Sandoval’s opener had seven minutes in. The Albuquerque native’s finish from a yard out after Roughnecks goalkeeper Sean Lewis was unable to properly turn away Manny Padilla’s initial shot might have been the easiest goal he’ll score in his United career.
The Roughnecks made sure it wasn’t. The visitors produced a far stronger second-half performance that put the hosts on their heels at times, adding a cutting edge to the advantage in possession they carried through the second half with 14 shots after the break. On the hour-mark, Luca Lobo’s third goal in the past two games ratcheted up the pressure on United.
“I was disappointed we didn’t continue that first half of creating chances and being dangerous,” United Head Coach Troy Lesesne told Seligman.
But unlike the past two games when New Mexico had let its lead slip away, instead it redoubled its defensive efforts. There were openings for Tulsa, but they were either quickly closed down before a shot could be fired goalward by a swarming New Mexico defense led by center back Justin Schmitt or launched off target. Janu Silva’s header with a minute to go was the closest the visitors came to an equalizer, but it flashed a yard over the crossbar, leaving the crowd to exhale once again before breathing in deeply to exhort United’s players to the finish line.
New Mexico native Josh Suggs was one of the key players in NMU's first victory in club history, which came before a crowd of 8,330 fans at Isotopes Park. | Photo courtesy Josh Lane / New Mexico United
When that finish line appeared and the final whistle blew, the celebration began. The players joined hands in a chain at the top of the penalty area and ran cheering toward The Curse behind the goal at the South end of the field, then exchanged high-fives with those who’d provided the most vocal support in the club’s first two home games.
The flags flew high, and the cheers echoed on into the night.
There will be other nights like this in NMU’s future. The ability they showed in attack and resilience they showed in defense added to the idea that this is may be the side best-fitted to be a USL Cup Playoffs contender at the end of the season. With five points from its first three games, United is on a solid course under Lesesne.
But there isn’t much that beats being on the field, or in the stadium, when that first victory appears. For the players and the fans, they’ll carry the memory of this game with them for a long time to come.
“This is the reason we become soccer players,” Moar told Seligman. “We dream to play in front of these type of crowds. Having this amount of people in the stands is unbelievable.”
So no, it was never going to be easy.
But when the first victory by an expansion side in the 2019 USL Championship season arrived, it was well worth waiting for.