One more, for the road.
That has been the mantra for New Mexico United since March, when the coronavirus pandemic mandated a four-month hiatus of play and altered the trajectory of a year that eventually manifested as a sensational season devoid of home matches.
The mantra will see at least one more recitation in 2020 after New Mexico — via a superb Chris Wehan goal in extra time — defeated San Antonio FC 1-0 on Saturday night at Toyota Field in Texas.
Wehan played the role of the Greek hero in the club’s first postseason victory, commanding play and directing Troy Lesesne’s men from midfield with an incendiary aggressiveness that secured the first playoff triumph in United’s cursory existence.
Patience was most certainly a virtue for head coach and technical director Lesesne’s side on an evening where the heat index mandated hydration breaks on either side of the half. Measured, precise communication in the midfield — particularly in the second half between Wehan and Amanda Moreno — imbued the stifling Texas atmosphere with a certain, unlikely freedom of movement afforded to the visitors.
The match’s lone goal in the first 15 minutes of extra time, corralled by Wehan from a cross before the left-footed finish in the box that would send United on, was a thing of technical beauty.
While the clubs’ head-to-head history is brief — with only two previous meetings between the young teams — early fouls from either side of the pitch lent the match a near-immediate aura of playoff physicality and animosity. Poor execution kept the scoreboard untouched before the half: United suffered from passes deficient in accuracy, while San Antonio’s attempts to stretch the field and bypass United midfielders were stymied with regularity.
New Mexico nearly had a breakthrough in the 12th minute after displaying more creativity through the Moreno connection, but several waves of pressure were cut short with captain Josh Suggs missed a sparkling chance that went well wide of the post.
Moreno — who showed flashes of offensive inventiveness and a glut of pace during a first year with United that earned him 6 goals, 4 assists and the club’s MVP award — tested San Antonio’s midfield with several brilliant individual plays on the ball in the first half highlighted by a bicycle kick attempt at the 39th minute that failed to connect.
San Antonio’s Jordan Perruzza very nearly had a glancing header serve as the opening goal following a 44th minute corner kick, but New Mexico goalkeeper Cody Mizell made an astounding save from point-blank range to send the match into the interval without a goal registered.
The scoreless second-half resumption at first looked to present an opener for San Antonio, but defender Liam Doyle’s set piece header past Mizell was immediately called off when Doyle was called for a foul after ascending the shoulders of United defender Austin Yearwood.
San Antonio simply ran out of time in the end, as three minutes of stoppage time saw the desperation of the home club come up empty without a meaningful look on goal.
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United came into the match after the most razor-thin of margins at the top of Group C rewarded New Mexico with a second seed and a date with high-flying San Antonio. Third overall in the Western Conference with 33 points during the pandemic-shortened regular season, first-year head coach Alen Mercina’s side had a remarkable undefeated stretch to open the 2020 calendar, not conceding defeat until the September sun set toward the end of a shining 10-3-3 campaign.
United is now 2-1-0 all-time against San Antonio, with both previous visits coming during the club’s inaugural 2019 season — New Mexico blanked the Texas team 3-0 on the strength of a Wehan brace before receiving a 5-0 throttling at Toyota Field in August of last year.
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Moreno, who displayed the most abundant levels of creativity during the first playoff win of United’s short tenure, was outshadowed simply by the timeliness of Wehan’s intervention in extra time. While the young forward was clinical in his chance creation, the postseason goal outweighed Moreno’s contributions in the end.
New Mexico is slated to play El Paso Locomotive FC next weekend in the Western Conference semifinals. The USL Championship playoffs will be streamed on ESPN+ until the final, which will be broadcast on ESPN.
As for San Antonio, after the acrid taste of an early playoff exit that a dominant regular season side didn’t anticipate, the club can be consoled — once the wound heals — with the notion that the extraordinary circumstances of the 2020 sporting world didn’t dampen its resolve. Any successful endeavor in the year of the coronavirus is reason for celebration, and the players of San Antonio can return home with their heads held high.
Andrew Gunn is the copy editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites