New Mexico United did not come away from Sunday’s nationally televised contest with points, but the visitors did put on an entertaining show.
Host Louisville City netted two early goals and held off a strong second-half threat to take a 3-1 victory over United at Lynn Family Stadium on Sunday. The win clinched a USL Championship playoff berth for LouCity (15-5-7) and left NMU (10-9-7) tied with Rio Grande Valley for the Mountain Division’s final playoff spot.
NMU has six matches remaining in the regular season, while RGVFC (10-10-7) has five.
Sunday’s match was televised on ESPN2 and the home side seemed primed to steal the show. Paulo Di Piccolo scored twice from point-blank range in the first 14 minutes and the USL Central Division leaders seemed well on their way to a convincing win.
But New Mexico, which came in on a three-match winning streak, made its presence felt. Amando Moreno scored in the closing seconds of first-half stoppage time, and United dominated the first 25 minutes of the second half.
Moreno, in fact, had two golden chances to even the score but sent one open shot over the frame and another rattling off the crossbar.
New Mexico outshot the hosts 6-2 in the second half but was unable to find the net. LouCity’s James McLaughlin ultimately put home what would be a clincher in the 75th minute on a difficult cross-field shot at full stride.
“You can’t start slow against a quality opponent,” coach Troy Lesesne said in a post-match interview. “We did start slow and those early goals were obviously costly, but we also fought back. I’m so proud of the way our guys responded against one of the most storied franchises in the league over the last six or seven years.”
United made a previous national TV appearance earlier this season and did not earn high ratings in a 3-0 loss at San Antonio. Sunday’s match got off to a similar start as LouCity controlled the opening 15 minutes, sending three crosses directly through the New Mexico box.
Two resulted in Di Piccolo goals that NMU goalkeeper Alex Tambakis had no chance to prevent. Di Piccolo netted the first on a sliding redirect of Antoine Hoppenot’s cross from the left wing in the eighth minute. Di Piccolo converted his seventh goal of the season in the 14th minute after Oscar Jimenez got behind NMU’s defense to the right of the goal and centered a well-placed pass.
Tambakis made a sparkling save on a bullet from Cameron Lancaster in the 32nd minute, and despite being outshot 9-2 in the first half, United managed to turn the momentum just before intermission. Daniel Bruce worked his way behind Louisville’s defense on a well-executed possession, then hooked a centering pass to Moreno at the front of the box. Moreno’s fifth goal of the season made the score 2-1 and NMU’s attack amped up its pressure in the second half.
Unfortunately for the visitors, Moreno’s two quality chances for the equalizing goal narrowly missed.
“If one of those goes in, the match certainly changes,” Lesesne said. “But our guys kept pressing, even after it was 3-1, and that was encouraging to see.”
United still controls its playoff path with four of its final six regular-season matches at home. NMU hosts Hartford Athletic on Wednesday and entertains Rio Grande Valley FC for a key division match Saturday.