Purple smoke drifted over the stadium and a full moon was rising as Wednesday night’s New Mexico United match began.
Both were fitting. Fans were in for a strange one.
Chris Wehan scored two second-half goals as United (11-9-10) came from behind for a critical 4-2 victory over San Antonio FC.
The win, combined with El Paso’s 3-0 victory over Austin Bold, gives New Mexico a bit of breathing room in its quest for a playoff berth.
NMU has 43 points, Austin has 40 and Rio Grande Valley has 38 in the chase for fourth place in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division – the final playoff position. United and Austin have two matches remaining, while RGV has three and hosts New Mexico on Saturday. (Click here for standings.)
“I’m really happy with how we performed and stuck to our style of play,” United coach Troy Lesesne said. “I felt like the game got away from us for a brief moment in the first half and we gave up two goals, but the group stayed focused and did a great job executing in the second half to come away with three big points.”
Beautiful as the result was for United, Wednesday’s match was not always pretty. The teams combined for a USL Championship-record 15 yellow cards, one red card (shown to San Antonio’s Ollie Wright) and 36 fouls, giving an announced 5,593 fans plenty to cheer, chant and yell about.
Both head coaches picked up yellow cards, as did New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, and one controversial call set up a penalty kick converted by SAFC’s Nathan Fogaca. Another yellow card went to SAFC’s Joaquin Varela for a blatant flop after he bumped into Tambakis and fell to ground. The flop was replayed on the stadium’s video board and Varela received a chorus of boos.
Still, New Mexico did the better job maintaining its composure, particularly in the second half, when it outscored the visitors 3-0 to secure the win.
“When that stuff happens it’s a collective effort to keep each other focused,” New Mexico defender Austin Yearwood said. “I thought our guys did a great job of that in the second half.”
Meanwhile, Wehan put on a show, playing a role in all four United goals. He scored on a free kick, blasted in a shot from the left wing and created rebound opportunities for teammates Ilija Ilic and Andrew Tinari.
“Things are clicking for me right now,” said Wehan, who has 12 goals overall this season, eight since rejoining United in mid-August. “The most important thing is to get results, but I do what I can, get in the right spots and try to make things happen.”
Ilic gave New Mexico an early lead, banging home a rebound on a Wehan shot in the 12th minute. San Antonio (13-8-9) answered with two goals in four-minute span, getting a penalty kick from Nathan Fogaca followed by a Varela tally to make it 2-1 in the 35th minute.
That margin lasted into the second half but the momentum turned when Wright picked up his second yellow card after colliding with Tambakis in the 58th minute. New Mexico had a man advantage the rest of the way and took full advantage of it.
Wehan scored on a deflected free kick in the 66th minute to tie the score, then set up another rebound chance in the 78th. Tinari’s sliding goal gave United the lead, and Wehan clinched things on a cross-field assist from Josh Suggs in the 90th minute.
United was significantly short-handed Wednesday, playing without injured forwards Amando Moreno, Devon Sandoval and midfielder David Najem. Moreno suffered a torn ACL in Sunday’s match against San Diego and will miss the remainder of the season, Lesesne said. Sandoval’s injury is still being evaluated, Lesesne said, while Najem is likely to return to action soon.
“Amando’s injury is obviously a massive loss for us,” Lesesne said, “but we’re going to be resilient and keep pushing forward. It’s devastating in a lot of ways for him individually though, playing for us and representing El Salvador. Our hearts are with Amando.”
(Click here for match statistics.)