EL PASO — For the majority of Wednesday evening's USL Championship tilt between El Paso Locomotive FC and New Mexico United, the Albuquerque club displayed the crispness and confidence of a team who — in a fair and just existence — would have returned to the Land of Enchantment with a comfortable victory.
"Man stands face to face with the irrational," wrote French journalist and philosopher Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus. "The absurd is born of this confrontation between the human need and the unreasonable silence of the world."
United (1-1-1) may take some solace in the position of the absurdists after controlling the better part of a match drenched in south Texas sweat, yet settling for a 2-2 draw with El Paso (1-0-2) at Southwest University Park in front of a sellout crowd of cardboard cutouts.
A pair of late first-half goals from El Paso's Omar Salgado and Andrew Fox after an early tally via Chris Wehan followed New Mexico’s unfortunate 2019 blueprint of scoring early and relinquishing a lead while United defenders pondered half-time locker room communiqués.
The burgeoning rivalry matchup of I-25 foes mirrored the result United captured last year in El Paso, when a 2-2 draw on May 12 during a torrid stretch of form saw New Mexico briefly share the top of the Western Conference table with Portland Timbers 2. United are now 1-0-2 all-time against Locomotive.
United came out with a ferociously high press, garnering chance after chance in the first half including a Devon Sandoval goal that was called back for an offside call and a soaring Chris Wehan mishit in the first ten minutes. Wehan would later contribute several shots on goal in vicious counter attacks against a seemingly outmatched Texas side.
New Mexico head coach Troy Lesesne and company had no trouble controlling the tempo, connecting passes and winning challenges with relative ease throughout the first 35 minutes. The rapid turnaround from Saturday's season-resuming win against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC didn't dent the visitors' prowess and energy on the ball, and it seemed that United could do no wrong.
Locomotive, meanwhile, looked disoriented for the majority of the opening interval, with heavy first touches, ill-conceived decision making and poor crosses dooming the operation in the first half.
The unrelenting pressure in the opening salvo brought quick dividends. Wehan, fresh off Saturday's late-match winner in Colorado Springs, tallied his second goal of the season after a woeful series of defensive miscues led to an embarrassingly simple finish in the 11th minute.
Then, in what has become something of a rite of passage just before United heads to the locker room at halftime, a deflating sequence of vicious reprisals from the home side saw Lesesne's club suffer yet another late collapse.
El Paso's attack resuscitated in spurts in the final ten minutes of first half, and two goals in the span of five minutes led Locomotive to greet referee Chris Ruska's whistle with a one-goal lead.
The final 45 minutes saw a reduction in order and an embrace of chaos beneath a high desert rainstorm.
Locomotive regained control of the match as the cardboard cutouts in the stands — inserted in place of flesh and blood supporters as strict public health guidelines kept fans at bay — wilted under the steady rainfall. The Texans settled well into a robust stream of keepaway, earning a number of chances through a measured execution of dispossession and a rather taunting, enticing show of bravado seldom seen in the opening hour.
The most physical match by far of the United's young pandemic season brought forth six yellow cards, four given to El Paso players.
Albuquerque native and University of New Mexico alum Devon Sandoval inexplicably missed a sitter in the 67th minute that would have leveled the score, spraying a ball well wide of El Paso keeper Logan Ketterer's right post and wasting a gifted chance after the ball fell to his feet with a wide open look at goal.
He would find his redemption for the baffling miss after a penalty was called when Wehan was dragged down inside the box, and Sandoval sent a low liner just past Ketterer into the bottom left corner to secure a point for the visitors and vault United into second place in Group C.
DAILY LOBO MAN OF THE MATCH
Wehan, whose collegiate career at the University of New Mexico and standout creative efforts in the club's inaugural season have bought him allegiance from supporters, takes this week's prestigious Daily Lobo award after contributing the only goal from the run of play and drawing the foul that led to Sandoval's late equalizer.
SEXUAL ASSAULT ALLEGATIONS
Defender Manny Padilla, who played for the University of San Francisco from 2014 to 2017, has been suspended from the team after allegations of sexual assault during his time at USF resurfaced. The school acknowledged that Padilla was "involved in a case of sexual misconduct" in a press release on Tuesday.
"After an investigation by the USF's Title IX office, Mr. Padilla was found to be responsible and, as a result, he received disciplinary sanctions from the university," the release read.
United released a statement as well acknowledging that the club is aware of the allegations, and Padilla has been cooperating with the team in an internal investigation. He remains suspended pending the resolution of the inquiry.
Unlike Saturday’s tilt against Colorado Springs, where Weidner Field management allowed 1,000 supporters to attend without mandating masks and social distancing, the stands at Southwest University Park were occupied by cardboard figures. The so-called "Cutout Conductors" were likenesses of Locomotive supporters that were purchased for $35, with all proceeds benefiting COVID-19 relief funds.
"One of our sales executives saw this idea from a team in Germany, and we quickly adapted it for El Paso," Locomotive general manager Andrew Forrest said of the concept. "This is an innovative idea that we thought could be great fun for Locomotive fans, whether they attend the game or not. Dovetailing that with the ability to benefit COVID-19 relief funds, it was a no brainer."
Attendance figures were not released by El Paso.
United has some time to recuperate after playing two matches in five days. A rematch with Locomotive in Texas will take place on Friday, July 24 at 7:30 p.m.