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United’s whirlwind debut season ends with playoff loss

Aurora Arreola, left, and Sandra Hernandez celebrate after New Mexico United scored an early goal Wednesday night. A group of United fans gathered for a watch party at Albuquerque’s Civic Plaza. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

The powerful play that is the USL Championship postseason goes on, and New Mexico United has contributed its final verse.

Fresh off of an exhilarating, playoff-qualifying victory over Las Vegas Lights FC on Oct. 23, the sensation that has been United’s first season in the New Mexico sporting scene ended in California on Wednesday night. Sacramento Republic FC’s hopes of replicating its 2014 cup-winning performance stayed intact with a breathless 2-1 win in the first round of the 2019 Championship playoffs at Papa Murphy’s Park.

The white-knuckle affair featured the fastest goal in USL Championship postseason history, a deflating equalizer late in first half stoppage time and a world-class volley from Sacramento in the 82nd minute that ensured Republic’s passage to the quarterfinals on Saturday.

United needed less than a minute to make its intentions for the night clear.

The record-setting score came courtesy of Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval on what appeared to be an own goal at the 13-second mark. Sandoval — the club’s first signing and scorer of the first and last goals of the regular season — received a Santi Moar ball through a clustered Sacramento box and clipped a first-time shot off of defender Mitchell Taintor. A helpless Bobby Shuttleworth could only watch the resulting deflection hit the back of the net.

The early gaffe from Taintor imprinted the home side’s demeanor with a fresh intensity, and New Mexico goalkeeper Cody Mizell was forced into a number of early saves as United’s characteristic possession philosophy faltered. A Thomas Enevoldsen shot from close range in the 35th minute prompted a strong save that ricocheted off Mizell’s right post, and Republic soon reasserted its own authority deep into first-half stoppage time.

Allowing late equalizers was a periodical affliction throughout United’s regular season, and Wednesday night saw the tendency resurface. A Keven Alemán goal in the third minute of first-half stoppage time surely dampened the mood of the visitors’ locker room talk, and the second 45 minutes began with Sacramento retaining a tempering effect on United’s attack.

A 57.6% first half advantage in possession for Republic manifested again, albeit roughly, in the second half as United saw limited chances on goal. Enevoldsen would find the eventual winner with a sensational volley via a booming cross from Sam Werner. The Dane struck the floated ball through the laces and the hearts of United supporters, as the final 10 minutes and a last-ditch set piece from Chris Wehan failed to yield a leveler for New Mexico.

Kevaughn Frater, who served a suspension during New Mexico’s postseason-preserving win last Saturday, provided a spark coming off the bench in the 58th minute but suffered from a lack of service. Sacramento’s 18 shots to United’s seven reflected itself in the final scoreline.

While United ended its regular season with a euphoric 2-0 victory over Las Vegas Lights FC in front of an announced 13,788 crowd at Isotopes Park last Saturday, Republic’s 2019 campaign closed with a whimper. Nevertheless, both clubs struggled mightily during the last stages of the regular season, each winning only one of five to finish out their respective schedules.

It would be Sacramento that would eventually overcome its late-season struggles to keep its postseason run alive. Memories of New Mexico’s July victory at Papa Murphy’s Park faded into the California night as the referee signaled the close of the match.

On the other hand, United defender David Estrada tried to put the freshman club’s remarkable season in perspective after last Saturday’s improbable events.

“We came here to make a difference in this community, and making (the) playoffs in the first year sets a precedence for the rest of the history of this team,” he said.

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