COLORADO SPRINGS — After 126 days, COVID-19 protocol stacked upon COVID-19 protocol and a seemingly endless wait for a return to soccer for New Mexico United supporters, the black and yellow returned to competition on a blistering Saturday evening in Colorado.
The resumption of the USL Championship was a triumph for New Mexico, as a late Chris Wehan goal and stout defending saw United (1-1) take three points from and remain undefeated all-time against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC (1-1).
The 2-1 victory in front of a threadbare crowd of 1,000 spectators brought New Mexico to third behind Colorado Springs in the four-team Group C table with the weekend’s slate complete.
Both clubs trail El Paso Locomotive FC by a point with 14 games remaining in the pandemic-abbreviated season.
“We really wanted to put on for our city and state tonight,” offseason acquisition Kalen Ryden said of the importance the team placed on coming out of the gate (again) with a strong showing. “It’s been a long and difficult time, but man, it feels good to bring home three points.”
The USL Championship resumed operations earlier in the week with an overhauled schedule and a starkly revamped alignment after the pandemic forced the league — and all other professional sports — to come to a halt in early March. Breaking up the Western and Eastern conferences into eight regional groups, the league slotted United into perhaps the most daunting of the Western club brackets.
Labeled the Championship’s “group of death” by some commentators, with reigning league champion Real Monarchs SLC and I-15 rivals Locomotive FC rounding out the seeding, the four-month hiatus from competitive matches manifested itself from the outset in rusty execution. Attacks from both sides fizzled early, and stout defending — particularly from Sam Hamilton, who repeatedly shut down Switchbacks attackers in the box — gave the impression that the lengthy spell of inactivity had sapped a certain amount of soccer intelligence from the two sides.
Cue the first of two world-class goals.
Californian midfielder Saalih Muhammad opened the scoring with a spectacular volley from 35 yards that marked his first professional goal and would have surely been the top contender for goal of the week, were it not for the Switchbacks’ revenge half an hour later.
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Devon Sandoval found himself alone with Switchbacks keeper after a clever through-ball, but his first-time finish ricocheted off Sean Melvin back toward midfield. With Melvin caught well off his line, the rebound fell to the right foot of Muhammad who corralled it with mid-air precision and looped a volley over a keeper firmly rooted to the ground.
United survived one stoppage time scare when Uvaldo Luna scorched the crossbar from distance, but a second chance wouldn’t be denied when Switchbacks forward Aidan Daniels found space 25 yards out and sent a ferocious liner off the left post and in, knotting the score at halftime.
A heat wave gripping the Southwest led to an 89 degree temperature at kickoff, ensuring a hydration break on either side of the interval. As long shadows enveloped the pitch and mercifully provided some shade during the remaining 30 minutes, United caught another fortunate break after a George Lebese goal was called back for a dubious offside call.
Fortunately for head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne’s men, a regrettable tendency to give up leads with the clock in its dying ticks didn’t lead to the dropped points reminiscent of so many matches in 2019.
UNM alum Chris Wehan broke the deadlock with an 87th minute score. The tally secured New Mexico’s first victory since a 2-0 win over Las Vegas Lights FC on Oct. 19 ensured a back door entry into the playoffs.
Wehan freed himself with horizontal movement across the top right of the penalty area and set loose a right-footed turf burner that crossed the mouth of goal and evaded Melvin’s outstretched gloves. Lesesne immediately substituted Wehan for midfielder Daniel Bruce, and the club’s defensive shape held for the waning minutes for the full three points.
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Muhammad, with his soaring volley midway through the first half, set the tone for the remainder of the night and gave New Mexico supporters a long-awaited surge of surgical strike serotonin through a solitary display of technical prowess. After getting shut out by Austin Bold FC 1-0 more than four months ago, the highlight-reel goal should provide a boost of confidence to a club looking to recapture some of the flashy form it enjoyed during its expansion season.
MASKS OPTIONAL IN STANDS
With the coronavirus pandemic still ripping through much of the country, there was an alarmingly stark contrast between mask-clad technical personnel on the sidelines and the large portion of barefaced supporters in the stands.
While the league doesn’t require players to wear masks, Weidner Field’s pandemic safety protocol of “highly encouraging” face coverings was largely ignored by Switchbacks supporters, who also brushed aside the club’s stadium rules of remaining six feet apart in seating or standing areas.
The reckless move to not make masks required faced scrutiny on social media, with commentators deriding the league for not mandating them within states whose public health regulations allow for supporters to attend matches in person.
The coronavirus has killed more than 136,000 people in the United States as of Saturday. Colorado and New Mexico’s cases have also continued to rise in recent days. According to a study cited by Caleb Kannan for Politico, Colorado Springs is the fourth-most conservative city in the country.
COVID-19 implications aside, Lesesne surely exhaled a maskless sigh of relief at the positive restart to the 2020 season — as soon as he was properly socially distanced, of course.
Defenders Rashid Tetteh and Justin Schmidt were held out of the return to play due to unspecified lower back injuries, according to a press release from the club. Josh Suggs also didn’t make the trip to Colorado Springs for reasons unknown as of the publication of this article.
New Mexico has a quick turnaround, traveling to El Paso to continue Group C play against Locomotive FC on Wednesday, July 15 at 8 p.m. Colorado Springs has a full week to recuperate before traveling to Utah on July 18 for a matinee with Real Monarchs SLC.
Andrew Gunn is a senior reporter and the copy editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites