New Mexico United opened their heavily anticipated inaugural campaign in front of a sellout crowd at Isotopes Park on March 9, coming away with a 1-1 draw and their first ever point against Fresno FC.
Sporting the black and yellow home kit with the Meow Wolf logo emblazoned across the chest, Devon Sandoval opened his scoring account with the first goal in club history in the 25th minute. United were to be denied a victory and the full three points, however, after Brazilian winger Jackson's header from just outside the six yard box found the net for the visitors just minutes into the second half.
The buildup to the match was as electric and incendiary as the play on the field, as the club spared no expense in making their first ever match a memorable one. The first 5,000 supporters through the gates received flags bearing the crest and colors, which were unfurled in the stadium en masse approaching kickoff. As pregame box office lines stretched all the way to Avenida Cesar Chavez, United took to the pitch to deafening applause and fireworks from beyond the grass berm in right field.
Politicians from the city and state would not be denied an opportunity to take part in the pageantry. Newly elected Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham presented the game ball at midfield to an enthusiastic reception, and Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller addressed the crowd from the left field video board with a prerecorded message.
"Tonight, we unite around our new soccer team, part of the greatest game in the world," Keller said. "We come together as one New Mexico, as one Albuquerque, because we are United."
The home side dictated the pace of the match early, dominating possession throughout much of the first half. United were content to absorb pressure from Fresno and maintain control of the ball, exhibiting patience in their buildup play. Perhaps as a result, neither side saw clear cut chances on goal in the early stages — Fresno forward Jaime Chavez lofted a ball well over the crossbar in the first minute, with United's Ryan Williams similarly skying an errant shot into the stands at the fifteen minute mark.
Jemal Johnson had perhaps the best chance in the first half for the visiting side after a loose ball landed at his feet at the top of the box, but United keeper Cody Mizell easily dealt with the left footed shot directed straight at him.
The deadlock broke in the 25th minute after Las Cruces native and captain Josh Suggs collected a pass down the left flank and found Sandoval alone in space 25 yards out. Sandoval took a touch to settle the ball and then made no mistake with his delivery, rifling a strike past a helpless CJ Cochran in the Fresno goal to send the announced crowd of 12,896 into raptures.
It was seemingly destined, after all, for the first goal in club history to come from the first ever player signing with deep ties to New Mexico.
Sandoval's name is well known in Albuquerque due to his time as a standout player for Eldorado High School and the UNM men's soccer team. He made his professional debut after being drafted in the second round by Major League Soccer side Real Salt Lake in 2013 and has become somewhat of a journeyman in the domestic scene. Most recently playing for USL Championship club Atlanta United 2, Sandoval became the first player in United's history with his signing on June 6, 2018.
The remainder of the first half played out with markedly more intensity after the opening goal, but neither side were able to capitalize on a number of chances. A penalty shout by midfielder Chris Wehan was waved away by referee Mark Allatin in the 26th minute, and a number of counters by both clubs were snuffed out before any real danger occurred.
Fresno didn't take long to find the equalizer after coming out of the locker room for the second half. Defender Alex Cooper, hassled by two United defenders at the touchline, floated a right-footed cross to the edge of the six yard box that found the head of Jackson and the opener for the visitors in the 47th minute.
Play for the rest of the match became increasingly testy, and tensions boiled over as a touchline scrum erupted after a hard sliding challenge from Sandoval brought Fresno defender Zach Ellis-Hayden to ground. Sandoval went into the referee's book for the first yellow of the match after the melee subsided.
While both sides had a number of attacking chances and substitutions provided fresh legs, neither team could convert as final balls were lacking in quality. Sandoval had an audacious attempt at a bicycle kick in the 68th minute and numerous Fresno counters threatened the United goal, but successful play failed to materialize as the full time whistle sealed the 1-1 scoreline.
Head Coach Troy Lesesne spoke after the draw about his tactical approach to the game, with United handling 54.7% of possession on the night and decidedly more so in the first half.
"(Possession) is definitely our philosophy, and I think that that's when we're the most confident and comfortable," Lesesne said. "I think in the second half it changed a little bit, and they had some of the initiative in terms of winning the ball, but that's what we're going to try to do in most games. I think if we get in those positions and have that mentality, we'll have more success."
For the month and a half that the players have had to develop chemistry, the coach thinks the group has come together remarkably well. There was some miscommunication in transition and passing early on, but Lesesne believes that the group is just getting started in finding success.
"It's good to just get the season going — there's been so much anticipation and expectation, I think there is a little bit of a weight off all the players' shoulders," Lesesne said. "We're moving forward in the 2019 season, it's here, and it's good to get off the mark in the standings."
The big picture:
Even without taking home three points, United should consider the draw a victory after getting the first game under their belt largely unscathed. If the club continues to draw large numbers to Isotopes Park throughout the season, home field advantage will be a tangible asset throughout the 34-game schedule.
Four native New Mexicans and three UNM men's soccer alums are on the roster, with Sandoval, Wehan, and Suggs earning the starting nods for the inaugural match. All three figure to log substantial minutes this season, and with the experienced Suggs wearing the captain's armband, United can expect quality in the defense spearheaded by the USL Championship veteran.
United travel to Tempe, Arizona to take on Phoenix Rising FC on March 16. Phoenix played to a 3-3 stalemate against San Antonio FC in their season opener and look to build on their 2018 success, where they ultimately lost the USL Cup final to Louisville City FC. United will aim to regroup and get a result in the first away match of a long season.
Andrew Gunn is a freelance reporter for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites.