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Spirit of its own fans can’t will United to win

New Mexico United fans celebrate the team’s lone goal on Saturday in a 2-1 loss to the Switchbacks at Weidner Field in Colorado Springs. United was designated the home team for the match, and tickets went to its fans. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal

COLORADO SPRINGS – New Mexico United fans made themselves comfortable at Weidner Field on Saturday, but the team they traveled nearly 400 miles to support never quite got settled.

The Colorado Springs Switchbacks – Weidner Field’s usual tenants – took a little of the gusto out of the celebration with a 2-1 victory over United in front of the latter’s soccer-hungry fans.

An announced crowd of 878 in full throat and sporting yellow-and-black team colors made the trip from New Mexico to Colorado Springs for what was billed as United’s 2020 home opener. NMU has played all 13 of its matches outside its home state because of New Mexico pandemic restrictions that prohibit large gatherings.

The team’s devoted fan base turned out in force after team officials rented Weidner Stadium – usually home of the Colorado Springs Switchbacks – and made all tickets for Saturday’s available to New Mexico fans. Social distancing requirements limited attendance to 1,000 in the 5,000-seat stadium. Spectators wore masks, including free United masks handed out with opening-day flags as fans entered the facility.

Neither pandemic reminders nor the unwanted outcome could spoil the day for United fans, many of whom continued to dance, wave banners and cheer on the team after the final whistle. United players slowly circled the pitch and applauded in appreciation.

RJ Montano and a fellow United fan who identified himself only as Red Sombrero lead the way into Weidner Field for Saturday’s game. Attendance was announced at 878, and all tickets went to United fans. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

“Our fans are the best in the country. We love ’em,” goalkeeper Cody Mizell said. “This is the biggest crowd I’ve played in front of in this stadium. That’s pretty impressive when you think everyone had to drive up here.”

More than 200 United fans gathered for pre-match tailgating in a parking lot east of the field. Weather conditions in Colorado Springs and Albuquerque were nearly identical Saturday and fans seemed right at home, chanting, waving banners and unleashing yellow and black smoke grenades as they anticipated the contest.

“It’s surreal, to be honest,” said P.J. Hess, who made the trip from Albuquerque on Saturday morning. “I feel so lucky to be here because if we have 1,000 fans here, there are 12,500 more who are not here. We have to raise our voices for them.”

Anthony Funaro agreed. “As soon as I heard about this match, I knew I was coming,” he said. “I was online in like the first five seconds that tickets went on sale and I was nervous I wouldn’t get mine. After waiting all these months to see the team, there was no way I was missing this match.”

Devon Sandoval, left, battles the Switchbacks’ Rony Argueta in Colorado Springs. Saturday, Sept. 19, 2020. Sandoval scored United’s lone goal in a 2-1 defeat, (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Unfortunately for the fans, United did not enjoy its best day. New Mexico posted two wins and a draw in its first three matches against Colorado Springs this season, but a brief span sandwiched around halftime proved costly.

United (7-4-2) is battling El Paso for the USL Championship’s Group C lead and entered Saturday one point out of first place. Both teams have clinched playoff berths and they’ll meet in El Paso next Saturday night.

Hoping to keep the pressure on El Paso, United grabbed a 1-0 lead on a Devon Sandoval goal in the 28th minute. But the Switchbacks cashed in a penalty kick in first-half stoppage time, then took the lead on Luke Ferreira’s well-placed blast in the 48th minute.

United outshot the Switchbacks 18-10 and put seven shots on target to Colorado Springs’ three. But despite a late flurry of attempts, New Mexico could not get an equalizing goal and made the trip back to its actual home without any points.

“It was a great atmosphere,” defender Kalen Ryden said. “I loved seeing the spirit and passion of our fans and they were loud. I thought we played hard and were the more dangerous team, but just two moments in the game didn’t go our way. That’s disappointing.”

United coach Troy Lesesne missed Saturday’s match to be with his wife, who is expecting. Assistant coach Zach Prince filled in for Lesesne.

(Click here for United Soccer League Championship division standings, here for match statistics.)

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