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United falls 3-2 in El Paso

New Mexico United’s Devon Sandoval controls possession in his return to play from injury on Saturday night in the team’s 3-2 loss at El Paso. (Courtesy of Ivan Pierre Aguirre/El Paso Locomotive FC)

The race for first place got considerably tighter Saturday night.

El Paso Locomotive FC stung visiting New Mexico United with a pair of second-half goals and pulled out a 3-2 victory in a hard-fought USL Championship match at Southwest University Park. Dylan Mares scored the decisive tally in the 88th minute to lift El Paso to its first win over United in five all-time meetings.

Saturday’s result pulled El Paso (5-2-3) to within two points of first-place United (6-3-2) atop Group C. New Mexico has 20 points with five regular-season matches remaining, while El Paso has 18 points with six matches to play. (Click here for updated USLC standings.)

Possession was even throughout Saturday’s match, but United had the better of things in the first half. Playing its 11th straight road match because of New Mexico’s pandemic restrictions, United took a 2-1 lead to intermission in its third visit to Southwest University Park this season.

Midfielder Amando Moreno had a hand in both United goals. His unselfish pass after a long run set up teammate David Estrada for an easy tap-in in the 13th minute to give the visitors a 1-0 lead. The assist extended Moreno’s points streak to eight consecutive matches.

El Paso answered in the 26th minute when Macauley King headed in a shot off a Dylan Mares corner kick. The well-executed set piece made the score 1-1.

United regained the lead in the 41st minute after Moreno was taken down in the box to set up a penalty kick. Devon Sandoval, who returned after missing several matches with a lower back injury, cashed in the PK to make the score 2-1.

But El Paso dominated the first 15 minutes of the second half, forcing the action and setting up several good scoring opportunities. The pressure finally paid off when Mares’ attempted pass to the center of the box deflected off NMU defender Austin Yearwood and into the net. The own goal made it 2-2 in the 60th minute.

It stayed that way until the 88th minute, although both teams had quality scoring chances in the interim. A crossing blast by Romeo Parkes that sailed just wide of the right post in the 84th minute may have been United’s best chance to break the tie.

El Paso got the eventual winner after Omar Salgado got past a fallen United defender on the left wing and hit an attacking Mares in stride inside the box. The home team finished with a 21-8 shot advantage, most of it amassed early in the second half.

NOTES: For a second straight week, both teams stopped play and stood together near midfield for 1 minute, 46 seconds in the first half to bring attention to racial injustice. … A socially distanced crowd of 1,500 attended Saturday’s match after El Paso’s attendance limit was increased from 800 this week. … United will visit Real Monarchs next Saturday in a match that was originally set for Albuquerque but moved due to New Mexico’s pandemic restrictions.

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