Much better late than never.
Micheal Azira and Ilija Ilic each scored their first New Mexico United goals — both of them in stoppage time — and NMU pulled out a weather-delayed 3-1 victory over visiting Colorado Switchbacks FC on Friday night.
The match started 61 minutes late due to lightning in the vicinity of Isotopes Park, but an enthusiastic and star-studded crowd announced at 9,728 was hardly bothered. United (5-5-2) snapped a three-game losing streak in dramatic fashion, delivering with the two late goals.
“It was a great feeling,” said Azira, whose header in the first minute of stoppage time put United ahead to stay. “Getting my first goal and being able to help my teammates in that situation, that was awesome.”
It was a fitting ending for a festive night that included some high-profile attendees. Albuquerque MMA star Holly Holm and former University of New Mexico and NBA standout Kenny Thomas took part in the pregame, as did three cast members (Rhea Seahorn, Patrick Fabian and Giancarlo Esposito) from the TV series “Better Call Saul.”
The celebrity introductions served to fire up an already enthusiastic crowd bent on helping the home side get back on a winning track.
Sergio Rivas amped up the volume even more with a first-half goal for United, capping a well-executed play in the 17th minute. Josh Suggs’ free kick from the right wing found Kalen Ryden on the far side of the goal, and Ryden sent a centering pass that set up Rivas’ team-leading third goal.
But United’s early tally was answered in painful fashion for the home side. Colorado Springs’ goal-scoring machine, Hadji Barry, capitalized on a New Mexico turnover and converted his 12th goal of the season (four coming against United) to even the score in the 33rd minute.
Worse yet, New Mexico defender Sam Hamilton suffered an apparent leg injury on the play and had to be helped to an on-field ambulance. There was no immediate word on Hamilton’s condition, but he was certainly on the minds of his teammates and NMU coach Troy Lesesne.
“We’re happy about the win but definitely concerned about Sam,” Lesesne said. “He’d actually given an incredible message pre-match and I think we were thinking about that at halftime. We wanted to go out and represent him the right way.”
If the crowd was a bit subdued at halftime, things picked up considerably in the second half. Physical play from both sides resulted in a slew of yellow cards and a straight red card for Colorado Springs’ Sebastian Anderson in the 55th minute.
Anderson hit United’s Daniel Bruce across the face, and the resulting card left his team a man down for the remaining minutes. New Mexico played the final 35 minutes shorthanded in a previous 3-1 win at Colorado Springs earlier this season after a red card to Andrew Tinari.
Colorado Springs chose not to sit back with a man disadvantage and actually forced New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis to make a pair of outstanding saves. But New Mexico continued to press the action and ultimately made the consistent pressure pay off.
“It speaks to the quality of Colorado Springs,” Lesesne said, “that they continued to create opportunities a man down. But guys stepped up at big moments. Alex stepped up and then Chelo (Martinez) and Micheal and Ilija stepped up.”
Azira gave the hosts a 2-1 lead by heading the ball home on a corner kick from Martinez in the first minute of stoppage time. Azira, who had come on to replace Hamilton in the first half, set off a party in the stadium’s south stands with his go-ahead goal.
“I tried to get a good serve and execute,” Martinez said of his well-placed corner kick. “I just wanted to get it in a good spot and Mike was there. He did a great job with it.”
Ilic put things out of reach three minutes later, working the ball past sprawling Colorado Springs goalkeeper Sean Melvin on the right side of the goal, then knocking it into the net from a short angle.
United outshot the visitors 16-9, putting seven shots on frame, and controlled the possession after halftime. The Switchbacks (5-4-2) held 64% of the possession in the first half.
Charleston Battery at NM United, 7:30 p.m., 101.7 FM/ESPN+ (streaming)/Estrella TV.
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