"If you're a fan, you can't ask for anything more... that's for sure."
New Mexico United head coach Troy Lesesne summarized his club's 3-3 draw with the Portland Timbers 2 at Isotopes Park on Friday night. In a match up between two teams atop the Western Conference, the fixture was a first-rate experience of the mercurial nature of competitive soccer. The 90 minutes were fraught with wild swings of emotion for the record 12,921 in attendance — confidence, frustration and despair gave way to euphoria as a last-gasp equalizer from United forward Kevaughn Frater rescued a point for the home side.
The first half was devoid of goals but not lacking in intensity as both clubs suffered a number of near misses on goal. The final scoreline may have approached double digits had the goalposts been widened a few inches in either direction.
United's Santi Moar created the best chance in the opening half early on with a quick burst down the left flank in the second minute. His pass found the left boot of Chris Wehan, who shook off his defender with a clever turn in the penalty area but sent his close range effort over the bar. Eryk Williamson had several attempts for Portland go just wide as the clubs traded chances through 45 minutes, but the referee whistled the period to a scoreless close.
Then came the deluge.
A frantic finish to the first half spilled over into the second; New Mexico found their opener within five minutes as Frater latched onto the end of a flicked header from Wehan and sent a half-volley between the legs of Timbers 2 keeper Jake Leeker. The Jamaican notched his second after United was awarded a penalty minutes later, and New Mexico looked to have the match well in hand. It was not to be.
The Timbers came roaring to life, scoring three in the span of 11 minutes. Eryk Williamson and Ryan Sierakowski brought the raucous crowd back to earth with two goals in quick succession. United would be called for a handball of their own soon after to set up a penalty for Williamson — he converted with ease, and things turned ugly for a moment.
As Portland celebrated in front of the designated supporters' section behind goal, the crowd demonstrated their displeasure in disgraceful fashion. Beer and debris briefly rained onto the field and players, and United keeper Cody Mizell quickly exhibited leadership and composure by forming a shield between the opposition and fans.
"I think this game is very emotional," Mizell said after the match. "We have to hold our emotions in the right way as players, and they do as fans; the same way we'll learn from this game, fans will learn from that."
Portland held onto their lead for the remainder of the half and appeared to have three points secured. The Frater show, however, was not yet complete. A dizzying sequence of United corners in the last minutes saw Mizell join the attack to try and find a leveler, and a mass of bodies in the Portland 6-yard box furiously tried to control the ball. Sam Hamilton managed to loft a pass out to a wide open Frater at the edge of the area, where the 24-year old unleashed an unstoppable volley past Leeker. The extraordinary ending wasn't lost on the crowd — Isotopes Park erupted into a frenzy after the late equalizer, and Frater's hat trick sealed the result as referee Alejandro Aguilar signaled the end of the match just moments later.
UNM soccer product Wehan said the result was frustrating after letting the early lead slip away, but he and his teammates didn't give up.
"We knew that there was still plenty of time to get back in the game," Wehan said. "That was a really big moment of adversity for us, and it was good to come together and have the belief that we can get back in this game."
With Kevaughn Frater and Santi Moar sharing the league lead in goals scored at seven apiece, New Mexico hasn't been left wanting for more in the attack. However, if New Mexico is to be a power in the Western Conference throughout the 34-game schedule, they'll want to start finding ways to plug their leaky defense. If draws can start becoming wins on a regular basis, the club will be a real contender for first in the west.
David Carl, president of supporters group The Curse, posted an open letter on Twitter immediately following the match condemning the throwing of debris on the pitch. "(We) share a responsibility not to allow the countless hours that unnumbered people have put into this club to go to waste," Carl said. A commendable response to unacceptable behavior.
New Mexico will continue their homestand with a Cinco de Mayo matchup against San Antonio FC; kickoff is set for 5:05 p.m.
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.