ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – We knew leading up to the day of the game there was the possibility that New Mexico United was going to break through the 15,000-attendance mark on Sunday for its first – and certainly not last – game on Cinco de Mayo.
Still, when the announcement came down just past the 70th-minute mark of its clash against San Antonio FC that 15,023 fans had packed into Isotopes Park, there was still a sense of wonder at what this club has been able to accomplish in such a short space of time in winning over the hearts of New Mexico’s soccer fans.
Oh, and the on-the-field stuff isn’t going badly either.
By the time the announcement came over the public address, NMU was already comfortably on top of its visitors as Chris Wehan struck twice and Kevaughn Frater added two assists on another high-flying night at The Lab that saw Head Coach Troy Lesesne’s side move into sole possession of first place in the Western Conference for the first time in its history.
With its success on and off the field, NMU isn’t just one of the best stories in the USL Championship this season, but one of the best stories in North American soccer in 2019, period. What’s more, there’s little reason to believe this side is going to slow down anytime soon.
Here’s this week’s 18.
1. Maybe the most interesting element of Sunday night’s game was how well San Antonio played for most of the first half after Devon Sandoval had given the hosts the early lead, and you might argue the most critical moment of the game came four minutes into the second half.
2. SAFC’s Brian Gomez had a massive one-on-one chance that was parried away by NMU goalkeeper Cody Mizell to keep the hosts ahead on what would be the best chance the visitors got all game. Ten minutes later, Wehan had his first and quickly added a second on a counterattack that caught San Antonio’s defense – in particular Ebenezer Ackon – ball-watching to effectively end the game.
3. San Antonio has now lost all four of its road games this season, putting it in the same boat as Hartford Athletic and Tacoma Defiance as sides that have yet to pick up a road point yet this season.
4. Hartford Athletic has, however, finally earned its first point of the season as its inaugural home opener at Rentschler Field was welcomed in fine fashion by the 11,346 fans that saw a 1-1 draw against the Charlotte Independence. The Athletic will get their next chance at the first win in club history this Friday night when fellow expansion side Memphis 901 FC visits but taking that first step forward was big for Head Coach Jimmy Nielsen and his side.
5. “I think it'll be good for us to get a rhythm,” said Hartford forward and Massachusetts native Mac Steeves, who scored his first professional goal for the hosts. “Hopefully we can build some momentum and get to the next couple games next week. We're at home on Friday, so hopefully get another result.”
6. Given preconceived notions from this preseason, could the Western Conference standings look any stranger to someone who was getting their first look at them this morning? It’s still early, and the points totals are really congested with three points separating fourth and 13th positions, but to see top-four teams from a season ago Sacramento Republic FC, Real Monarchs SLC and Phoenix Rising FC all below the playoff line right now is still really something.
7. Taking their place are sides like Fresno FC, which might have banked its best win of the regular season so far with a 4-2 victory against the Monarchs at Zions Bank Stadium on Saturday afternoon. The Foxes are still the last undefeated side in the West, and with the fewest games played of any side in the league have a realistic chance at challenging for top spot by this time next week.
8. Going back to the idea of preconceived notions, by the way, the Foxes’ opening day draw with New Mexico United and the victory against Tulsa Roughnecks FC on April 13 are looking like far better results than we may have counted them as at the time.
9. One notable thing about the Foxes’ victory against the Monarchs? Juan Pablo Caffa didn’t have to lift a finger and Jemal Johnson only saw the last 20 minutes of action after coming on as a substitute. There was an element of risk to leaving out the two veterans to keep them rested from Wednesday’s big rivalry game with Sacramento Republic FC, but with Christian Chaney carrying the attacking load it was one that paid off very well for Head Coach Adam Smith.
10. While the Foxes are still undefeated, Sacramento Republic FC is in need of snapping out of the slump that it has hit over the past few weeks. Saturday’s 4-2 loss against Las Vegas Lights FC at Cashman Field was the first time Sacramento had conceded four goals in a game since its 4-1 defeat to the LA Galaxy II on August 18 last season. Prior to that? You’d have to go all the way back to the infamous “farewell, Preki” game on July 11, 2015 that saw the Galaxy II roll up a 4-0 win at Papa Murphy’s Park.
11. Republic FC has got an arduous eight days ahead starting with its visit to Fresno on Wednesday night. It’ll come out of that rivalry clash with the Foxes and immediately head home for back-to-back games with Reno 1868 FC, the first in the league this Saturday night and the second the following Wednesday in the Second Round of the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup. We might find out a lot about Head Coach Simon Elliott’s side in the next couple of weeks.
12. On the flipside at Cashman Field, what about Junior Sandoval introducing him to the Lights FC crowd with this 90th-minute rocket?
13. “Sandoval's goal was ridiculous,” said Lights FC Head Coach Eric Wynalda. “Brand new to the team, comes in and literally his first touch is a magical goal. Look, we can't get too ahead of ourselves but we're going to take a couple of days and really digest first, figure out how we're going to adjust for the game against Colorado, but I couldn't be happier with the group, the way they reacted.”
14. Speaking of ridiculous, what about Adam Najem’s assist for Memphis 901 FC against Birmingham Legion FC on Saturday afternoon?
15. The Duane Muckette goal that followed by all rights should have given Memphis its first home win of the season, but what looked to be an incorrect penalty kick call in favor of Legion FC in stoppage time meant the Bluff City Mafia is still waiting for its first three home points to celebrate. Given the previous gut-punches 901 FC has received this season, you certainly hope a break or two falls the club’s way soon.
16. To succeed consistently at a club like the Charleston Battery, you have to have some kind of an eye for talent. Judging from Saturday night Head Coach Mike Anhaeuser looks like he pulled out another plum from the Caribbean in forward Nique Daley. The 18-year-old’s first goal for the Battery – which earned a 2-2 draw with Pittsburgh Riverhounds SC at MUSC Health Stadium – was simply superb, giving a glimpse of what might be to come moving forward.
17. For the Hounds, who took a two-goal lead inside the opening 15 minutes, the draw is one that might sting for a little while. “I think it’s a game we’re going to regret right now, but we need to move forward,” said Hounds Head Coach Bob Lilley. “It’s typically a good result in Charleston. I thought we battled well. I thought we were ready to play. I thought we executed the game plan really well.”
18. It was far from Indy Eleven goalkeeper Evan Newton’s busiest night, but we wrap up this week with a tribute to the man who is now the Championship’s all-time leader in regular-season shutouts after notching his 41st with a three-save performance against North Carolina FC at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday night. From the time he arrived in the league in 2014, no-one has recorded more regular-season saves (380), and the Virginia Beach, Va. native has had more than his fair share of highlight-reel moments. All the while, he’s done it with a charm that has made him a fan favorite at every stop he’s made around the league, as could be seen by the congratulations for his accomplishment that were coming through on social media on Saturday night. Congratulations to Evan, Indy fans will certainly be hoping for plenty more this season.