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United can’t cash in on advantage, earn another draw

New Mexico United’s Chris Wehan, right, slides to deflect a pass from LA Galaxy II’s Nick DePuy on Saturday night at Isotopes Park. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Twice New Mexico United fell behind in a USL Championship match featuring flashes of brilliance and a suspect pitch, and twice the expansion club rallied to even the score in a four-goal thriller. Ultimately, it wasn’t enough to overcome a 10-man LA Galaxy II.

New Mexico (8-6-10) tied 2-2 with the visitors from Los Angeles in front of a record crowd of 15,247 at Isotopes Park on a breezy Saturday night (that is a United record, not an Isotopes Park record). The announced attendance eclipsed New Mexico’s previous record of 15,023, set during the Cinco de Mayo match against San Antonio FC.

United supporters, who have grown accustomed to enjoying their club opening the scoring at home, got a rude shock in the ninth minute as the Galaxy II (8-8-9) struck first.

With evening shadows enveloping the pitch, a booming 50-yard switch and a series of quick passes found the boot of Mohammed Kamara just outside the six yard box. The 21-year old Liberian forward, making his first start for LA after a transfer from Germany, displayed a deft piece of skill as he looped a ball over a defender to himself and fired into the roof of the net.

Pitch conditions created headaches for the players — particularly down the western flank and in front of the south goal — as the temporary sod laid over the infield dirt was patchy in spots. Players repeatedly stumbled on the uneven surface and took to fixing divots in the turf themselves. United was denied a near-certain goal early in the second half after a pass through the box caught an edge and popped above the range of Kevaughn Frater’s left boot.

“The turf wasn’t good,” Santi Moar admitted after the match, but went on to say that the chances created were enough for three to four goals.

United would find its equalizer in the 25th minute following a poor Galaxy II set piece. Jamaican forward Frater collected a clearance near midfield, then outraced a trio of LA defenders to just outside the penalty area on a blistering counter. A quick combination play found UNM alum Chris Wehan for an easy nudge across the mouth of goal.

Adam Saldana was sent off in the 41st after referee Lukasz Szpala showed the midfielder his second yellow of the night for yanking down a streaking Moar.

Both clubs had a number of chances in the second half, but New Mexico applied the pressure on 10-man LA and slowly took control of the match. United would end the match with 67.3% possession, but only a point to show for it.

New Mexico head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne was visibly frustrated in a postmatch press conference, saying it was unacceptable to not seal the win after being up a man for 45 minutes.

“Field conditions don’t matter at all,” Lesesne said. “Both teams played on it tonight — we need to do better, plain and simple.”

A pair of penalties evened the score at two apiece three minutes apart in the final 20 minutes — LA’s Augustine Williams converted with ease, and Frater lobbed a cheeky panenka in the 77th minute that just barely crossed the line before López could corral it.

With the result, New Mexico slid to seventh place in the USL Championship Western Conference standings with 34 points (pending results from Sacramento later Saturday night). United plays next at San Antonio FC on Aug. 24 at 6:30 p.m. — one of three remaining road trips left in their inaugural season.

NEW MEXICO UNITED GOING TO MARS: New Mexico has notched an impressive list of firsts in its inaugural season, including a league-leading average attendance (13,078). Thanks to California native and “sports superfan” Jerry Stoces, United will be heading to space in 2021 — if only in name.

The Mars 2020 Rover, scheduled to launch in the summer of next year, will feature a small chip etched with the name of the club on its top deck thanks to Stoces, who does public outreach for NASA.

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