For the first time in their brief existence, New Mexico United stands alone at the top.
The expansion club recorded an emphatic 3-0 win over visiting San Antonio FC (3-5-1) on a gorgeous Cinco de Mayo evening, playing in front of a record 15,023 at Isotopes Park. The result saw New Mexico (4-1-5) claim sole control of first place in the USL Championship's Western Conference with 17 points through 10 matches.
The celebratory atmosphere was colored by heartache — United defender Justin Schmidt wasn't available to play following the passing of his father Jonathan David Schmidt in an automobile accident in Wyoming eight days ago. A moment of silence was observed prior to kickoff, and the men in black wore armbands with the initials of Schmidt's father in solidarity with their teammate. 10,000 yellow armbands were distributed for free to supporters in advance of the match to underscore their esprit de corps with the grieving family.
"We talk a lot about vulnerability in our group.. about trying to be brave," New Mexico technical director and head coach Troy Lesesne said after the match. "I think these players handled (the tragedy) in such a classy way tonight, and I know that Justin will be proud of us."
New Mexico singer and folk hero, Chevel Shepherd, sang the national anthem prior to kickoff to an enthusiastic reception. The Farmington native won Season 15 of the reality competition The Voice, and her powerful performance was a harbinger of the sporting display to come.
United were quick off the mark, scoring first in the 9th minute. Kevaughn Frater capitalized on an offensive counter, deftly outmaneuvering his marker down the right lane and sending a low ball across the box to Devon Sandoval. The El Dorado High and UNM alum didn't miss, easily tapping in from close range at the back post and prompting smoke bombs from the supporters section behind the south goal.
Lesesne noted that conditions were affecting play on the pitch, this being United's first match played under a blistering New Mexico sun.
""We were able to get an early goal, and I think that makes a huge difference in a game when it's that hot out and the conditions are difficult to play in," Lesesne said.
The remainder of first half played out with increasing intensity, and United midfielder Chris Wehan was lucky to avoid entering referee Thomas Snyder's book after pushing San Antonio's Moises Hernández to ground. The visitors settled in, controlling possession and making several plays on goal, but their efforts went to naught as the New Mexico defense stood resolute. Hernández created the visitors' best chance in the first half with a vicious ball sent laterally into the six-yard box, but the deflection from Walter Restrepo skipped wide of the post, and the halftime whistle saw New Mexico into the locker room with a one-goal advantage.
The opening of the second half saw the United side brimming with confidence, and the result was sealed during a four-minute stretch of creative interplay from New Mexico's potent attack. A big switch found midfielder Santi Moar alone in space on the left flank, and the Spaniard surged into the box before running into a defender. Moar laid off a pass to an onrushing Wehan, who doubled United's lead with a smooth finish into the upper right corner of goal.
Wehan found his brace minutes later and assured three points for New Mexico after gathering a flicked, looping ball from Frater just past midfield. Driving down the left, the 23-year-old sprinted alone into the penalty area, San Antonio defenders in futile pursuit, and launched a shot into the upper quadrant from a severe angle to send the crowd into rapture.
San Antonio, try as they might, were simply outclassed by stout defending from New Mexico on the night, as the visitors managed 14 shots on goal with only 3 on target. United keeper Cody Mizell was rarely tested and recorded his second clean-sheet of the inaugural season.
A community united
The untimely death of Schmidt's father reverberated throughout the proceedings, and the club and its supporters rallied in support of the Schmidt family. A GoFundMe set up in the aftermath of the car crash raised over $22,000 for the medical expenses of Schmidt's mother, who was injured in the accident that claimed her husband's life and remains hospitalized. The club has expressed their full support of the family during this difficult time, with club CEO Peter Trevisani saying that they "will do everything we can to support her full recovery."
Man of the match
A brace from Wehan cements his burgeoning role as a playmaker for the club, and the UNM alum continues to shine in his first year with the expansion side. Expect a deep run in the U.S Open Cup beginning with a tilt against Phoenix Rising on May 14.
New Mexico United starts a three-game road trip with a Four Corners Cup match-up with fellow expansion side El Paso Locomotive FC at 6 p.m. on May 12.
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.