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United settles for costly draw

United’s Chris Wehan (14) reacts after Tacoma’s Sam Rogers (33) wasn’t called for a hand ball.

Earlier this week, Troy Lesesne told the Journal he expected his club to “come out flying” on Wednesday night, with the Tacoma Defiance visiting Albuquerque for a match with profound consequences for New Mexico United’s playoff hopes.

The spark United’s head coach and technical director had envisioned was borne out in reality on the pitch in every respect — except the winning one.

Despite a commanding lead in nearly every statistical category on a crisp midweek evening, New Mexico was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw in front of an announced crowd of 9,323 at Isotopes Park.

United couldn’t have picked a more compromising time to drop points: With the draw, New Mexico’s eleventh-hour push to qualify for the USL Championship playoffs took a serious — and perhaps fatal — blow. Starting and ending the evening in 11th place and just outside the playoff spots, New Mexico no longer controls its postseason destiny and needs a win and favorable results from other league games on Saturday to qualify.

Lesesne kept a bullish outlook in a postmatch appraisal of the night’s performance.

“I think the guys put every single ounce they had into trying to find the second goal,” he said. “If those metrics (from tonight) continue to go our way on Saturday, we’re going to put ourselves in a good position to win.”

The 36 shots Lesesne’s men recorded were the most in a single match league-wide this season, and NMU’s 15 shots on target tied for the most. New Mexico recorded 23 shots inside the box, with the bulk of them coming in a dizzying four minute sequence in stoppage time that failed to yield results.

A frenetic opening ten minutes saw Tacoma take a lead that melted away less than 60 seconds later. After a seventh minute goal from 18-year old Defiance forward Azriel Gonzalez caromed in from a severe angle, United answered in kind. A quick restart found Kevaughn Frater in a dangerous position inside Tacoma’s box, and the Jamaican’s pass to Chris Wehan saw the UNM alum cleave two defenders for a trickling equalizer.

It would be the last taste of scoring a sparser-than-usual crowd at Isotopes Park would receive.

The first half ended at 1-1 — despite New Mexico taking advantage of its opponent’s relative youthfulness to force 11 clearances and four blocked shots, Lesesne’s men suffered from an overreliance on low-percentage crosses, with only three shots of ten on target.

Defender Austin Yearwood praised his teammate’s efforts after the game and said the volume of chances created belied the final score.

“Everyone’s effort was there, and it was honestly just one of those nights where we didn’t see the ball cross the line,” he said.

The second 45 minutes told much the same story: Though United managed to exhibit superior quality on and off the ball and control expanses of possession, Tacoma’s defense stayed just resolute enough to hold off the home side’s increasingly manic offensive.

Despite the setback, Lesesne still portrayed a sense of optimism going into what may be the conclusion of his club’s season on Saturday.

“We have to have a quick turnaround: Saturday is right in front of us,” he said. “But look, it could very much go our way. It’s still right in front of us.”

SEASON FINALE: New Mexico will have little time to recuperate before playing its final match on Saturday, when Las Vegas Lights FC will try to play spoiler for New Mexico’s playoff potential. The regular season finale is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at Isotopes Park.

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