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United tops El Paso in joyous homecoming

United’s Chris Wehan (14) celebrates with his teammates after his second goal in New Mexico’s win over El Paso Wednesday night.

New Mexico United’s prolonged absence from Isotopes Park is over, and the club delivered a gem for its soccer-starved supporters.

United put El Paso Locomotive FC to the sword on a balmy Wednesday night, claiming a 3-0 victory in front of an announced crowd of 13,521 at Isotopes Park.

“It was pretty close to a complete performance from the boys tonight,” keeper Cody Mizell said after the match. “We went through a tough schedule (recently) with Open Cup and league play and had some tired legs, but now we’re back into the swing of things and super anxious to play.”

The first half was hardly bereft of intensity, but it failed to deliver a goal from open play with neither side able to maintain long spells of possession. Set pieces missed their targets, and crosses often lacked decisiveness. Flashes of creativity appeared sporadically as players grew into the match, but few chances were created as attacks fizzled.

“The first 20 to 25 minutes, they kind of imposed their will on the game,” coach Troy Lesesne said. “Maybe we were a little bit flat-footed, not disrupting their rhythm like we wanted to. From (the first goal) on, I thought we really controlled the game from the standpoint that we won the ball and were able to transition and create dangerous opportunities.”

New Mexico began its assault on El Paso with a penalty kick after Locomotive midfielder Nick Ross took down Ken Akamatsu in the box. Kevaughn Frater, who missed the previous match in Sacramento for an undisclosed internal issue, sent El Paso goaltender Jermain Fordah the wrong way and notched his club-leading 12th goal from the spot. The Jamaican was certainly happy to be back on the pitch.

“I love playing, so just being on the field was beautiful,” Frater said.

In the second half Lesesne made an apparent defensive-minded switch in the 69th minute, swapping out forward Devon Sandoval for midfielder Saalih Muhammad.

New Mexico asserted its authority soon afterward.

A mental lapse from Locomotive’s Fordah saw New Mexico double its lead in the 71st minute — his mishandling of a cross fell to the feet of Chris Wehan, who made no mistake from right in front of goal. Wehan would get his brace in short order, heading home a Frater cross in the 79th minute to finish off the victory.

“I was fortunate on the first goal that it fell to me. I think there was a mix-up between the center back and the goalkeeper,” Wehan said. “It was a great ball from Kev (Frater) on the second one. He put it on a platter.”

New Mexico’s return to Isotopes Park was a long time in the making, as the club endured a nearly two-month stretch of road matches. David Carl, president of the Curse supporters group, said that the remaining home-heavy schedule is a welcome sight with 13 games remaining.

“To have this many home games left (nine), any advantage you can get is huge,” Carl said, pointing to the parity throughout much of the USL Championship’s Western Conference. “To have (nine matches) at our place, where we’ve only lost one match all season, is a real advantage, and I think it’ll play a big part in helping us on playoff seeding.”

New Mexico supporters won’t have long to wait quite as long as before for the next home match. Lesesne and his men return to Isotopes Park on Saturday for a rematch with Austin Bold FC at 7:30 p.m.

 

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