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United, Cardiff City draw in friendly

United New Mexico’s Ken Akamatsu, 26, celebrates his score with teammates Justin Schmidt, left, and David Estrada, 19, in the second minute of the game at The University of New Mexico Soccer Complex on Thursday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

New Mexico United seems to be following a trend throughout much of its inaugural year: Score quickly, then let a lead slip away.

The club continued that pattern on Thursday night at the UNM Soccer Complex, securing a 1-1 friendly draw with former English Premier League side Cardiff City FC in front of an announced crowd of 6,347.

Kickoff saw Cardiff first in possession but United scoring first — and quickly. A low corner from UNM alum Chris Wehan pinged inside the box as Cardiff was unable to clear, eventually settling at the foot of Ken Akamatsu. The NMU midfielder maneuvered deftly through the congested area, opening up space with a lateral move and curling in a close-range effort in the second minute.

It was the home side dictating much of the pace of play at the outset, showing a crispness derived from a half season of training together. Backup keeper Ben Beaury, granted his first start for New Mexico, was rarely tested in the first half as the visitors often lacked cohesiveness in the final third. Three comfortable saves and a full-stretch effort to tip a Cardiff shot past the post just after the half-hour mark was enough to see the 1-0 scoreline into halftime.

Cardiff did have several chances. A shot clanged off the post in the 37th minute, and United was lucky to escape the first half unscathed as Cardiff began settling into more of a rhythm.

The second half saw both sides make a number of substitutions — as is standard in most soccer exhibitions, an unlimited number of subs are allowed, and both coaches took full advantage. Troy Lesesne, United head coach and technical director, commended the performance of players who to date had been rarely utilized.

“What I liked was the opportunity players had tonight,” Lesesne said in a postmatch news conference. “All the players tonight maximized their opportunity.”

New Mexico came out of the locker room with a renewed sense of purpose in possession. Devon Sandoval pulled a shot from outside the box just left of the post and was unfortunate to mis-hit a sitter in front of a wide-open goal minutes later.

Cardiff would score in the 64th minute after a New Mexico foul just outside the 18-yard box. Striker Omar Bogle placed a perfectly weighted free kick over the wall and into the top right corner, rooting a helpless Beaury to the ground.

A lackluster, flat performance from both sides plagued much of the final 30 minutes. Errant passes and poor crosses limited long spells of possession. The nature of a friendly manifested itself as neither club put in hard tackles, underscoring the importance of the players avoiding injury.

A notable debut for United came in the 75th minute, as Josh Goss made way for Gabe Legendre. The 17-year-old Cleveland High School student is the product of New Mexico’s fledgling youth academy and enjoyed a loud ovation during his few touches.

The stadium got a jolt of energy in the dying minutes. A late New Mexico corner missed the mark and a hopeful attempt from 40 yards by Cardiff’s Josh Murphy went high, but ultimately a ragged display by both clubs saw the final scoreline into the books.

Cardiff skipper Neil Warnock was effusive in his praise for the experience his club has had in the United States.

“Fitness wise, it was fabulous — just what we needed.” Warnock said. “Delighted, no injuries, great crowd, so it was really, really exciting.”

According to United officials, the friendly marked the first time in history that a European soccer team has played a match in the state of New Mexico.

The Welsh club, which beat EPL powerhouse Manchester United 2-0 on the final day of its recent season, is on a preseason North American tour in advance of its 2019-2020 EFL Championship campaign. New Mexico returns to USL Championship league play July 24 at Sacramento Republic FC, and Cardiff wraps up its tour on Saturday against Real Valladolid in Canada.

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