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United wins in USL season restart in Colorado Springs

New Mexico United midfielder Saalih Muhammad (16), right, celebrates with teammate Juan Pablo Guzman, left, after Muhammad scored a goal in the first half of Saturday’s match between New Mexico United and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Weidner Field in Colorado Springs. (Courtesy Colorado Switchbacks FC)

About 26 minutes into Saturday’s USL season reboot in Colorado Springs, the right leg of New Mexico United midfielder Saalih Muhammad certainly looked well rested.

And in the 87th minute, a very-much fatigued Chris Wehan managed to work his way past a pair of defenders and will United to 2-1 win over Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC — earning a valuable 3 points against a Group C foe in the abbreviated 16-game USL Championship season.

While fatigue, heat and months of frustrations may have played their part the rest of the night, United rode a high-energy start on Saturday at Weidner Field.

Four months’ after their last match due to the USL Championship shutting down play due to the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, United got on the board midway through the opening 45-minutes when Colorado Switchbacks FC keeper Sean Melvin deflected a Devon Sandoval shot in the box, but did not gather the ball. The carom bounced back out of the box toward a hard-charging Muhammad a good 30 yards from goal.

The 24-year-old from Richmond, Calif., struck the ball in stride, finding the back of the net and putting United up 1-0.

It was Muhammad’s first professional goal.

NMU, which lost its March 7 season opener at Austin before the shutdown, was playing shorthanded on Saturday — announcing three players didn’t make the bus ride north for the match.

And they weren’t just three any old players, either. The team played without defenders Justin Schmidt, Josh Suggs and Rashid Tetteh, who combined for 82 appearances and 80 starts during the 2019 season for United. The team posted on social media prior to the match that Schmidt — “upper body” — and Tetteh — “lower body” — were each on the official injury report. No reason for Suggs not making the trip was given.

Majority owner Peter Trevisani did say on a pregame radio show on ESPN 101.7 FM that no player or staff member for United has tested positive for COVID-19 while the team has been undergoing strict quarantine and safety protocols.

The absence of the missing defenders seemed most noticeable in the closing moments of the first half.

Sloppy play on the backline gave the Switchbacks several quality opportunities late in the half, with forward Aiden Daniels finally scoring on a rocket past NMU keeper Cody Mizell two minutes into stoppage time, sending the teams to halftime break tied, 1-1.

While the Switchbacks had the edge possession after intermission, either the mid-July heat or maybe the rust of four months of no matches led both sides to look sluggish and fatigued throughout the second half of play.

Taking full advantage of the league’s new, expanded substitution allowance of five for the 2020 season, United coach Troy Lesesne sent in four sets of fresh legs between the 64th and 78th minute of the match (he added a fifth in the 88th minute), clearly sparking a resurgence for United to close the match.

One of those substitutions at the 64th minute was forward Romeo Parks, who stole the ball from the Switchbacks at midfield in the 87th minute, thwarting a would-be Colorado Springs attack and passing it forward to Wehan.

The 26-year-old Wehan, who had nine goals and six assists in his 28 appearances last season, craftily maneuvered his way through and past several Switchbacks defenders, and with Sammy Sergi occupying one defender’s attention, Wehan pushed a shot past Melvin to the left corner of the net for the deciding goal.

It was hardly the most powerful strike of Wehan’s career, barely moving the net.

But it was more than enough to get the win, which after the past four months was all that seemed to matter of Saturday night.

United now plays at El Paso, another Group C team, at 8 p.m. Wednesday.

UP NEXT: Wednesday, NM United at El Paso Locomotive, 8 p.m., ESPN+ (online stream), 101.7 FM

ANTHEM DECISION: Just prior to the match, United issued a statement — both on social media and sent out to media via email — to announce the team, after “thoughtful and intentional conversation” decided to let players make their own decisions on whether to kneel or stand during the National Anthem.

“We fully support those who decide to kneel and will not tolerate these individuals being labeled anti-American,” the team stated. “We also fully support those who decide to stand and will not tolerate these individuals being labeled anti-Black Lives Matter.”

The team wore BLM armbands during the match, and both teams had a moment of silence and kneeled on the field after the anthem.

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