New Mexico United capped off a perfect season in Utah by the narrowest of margins Wednesday night.
Joris Ahlinvi headed home the decisive tally in the 59th minute as United escaped Zions Bank Stadium with a 1-0 victory over Real Monarchs. It was NMU’s fourth win in as many tries against the Monarchs this season with all four matches played in Sandy, Utah.
United (8-4-3) increased its point total to 27 and inched closer to first-place El Paso (8-2-5) in the USL Championship Group C race. El Paso Locomotive FC has 29 points but missed a chance to clinch first place Wednesday, playing to a scoreless draw at Colorado Springs.
The results create some intrigue as the final week of regular-season play winds down. El Paso plays at Real Monarchs on Sunday and can still secure first place with a win, but anything less could bring other scenarios into play.
United has completed its regular-season schedule but for a Sept. 23 contest at Rio Grande Valley FC that was postponed because of positive COVID-19 results within RGVFC’s “covered persons” umbrella. The match has not yet been rescheduled, leaving United with 15 matches while its Group C rivals will play 16.
With USL Championship playoffs set to begin next week, it is unlikely the postponed match will be played. But United may still have a chance to claim the top spot in Group C via tiebreaker. If El Paso finishes three or fewer points ahead of NMU and has played an extra match, a tiebreaker could be used to determine the top spot.
Details of a potential tiebreaker were not available Wednesday, but they would only come into play if El Paso loses or plays to a draw in its finale. El Paso and NMU have both clinched playoff spots and their head-to-head season series ended even at 1-1-2.
The tight Group C battle will undoubtedly have United fans cheering for Real Monarchs to defeat El Paso on Sunday. Those same fans, including many who attended drive-in watch parties in Albuquerque and Santa Fe on Wednesday night, had to sweat out a nervous finish between United and Real Monarchs first.
NMU controlled most of the action against Real Monarchs (3-10-2), finishing with 64% of the possession and outshooting the home team 10-8.
The Monarchs were content to play defense and look for counter-attack opportunities through a scoreless first half, but United amped up its pressure after intermission and soon broke the deadlock. Josh Suggs was able to control a long lead pass and deftly tap it over Monarchs goalkeeper James Slayton. Ahlinvi, attacking on Suggs’ right, got a step on his defender and headed the ball into to the open net to make it 1-0 in the 59th minute.
Both teams threatened to change the score in a wild final 10 minutes that featured several near-misses. NMU’s Amando Moreno bounced a shot off the left post, and Real Monarchs’ Steve Jasso came open in front for a high blast that NMU goalie Cody Mizell leaped to save.
When the final whistle sounded, Mizell was able to celebrate his birthday by securing his sixth clean sheet of the season and second in a row.