Afternoon rain didn’t put much of a damper on New Mexico United fans Saturday night.
The visiting team was a different story.
Visiting Birmingham Legion FC netted two first-half goals and let its smothering defense take it from there in a 2-0 victory over United at Isotopes Park.
Playing at its home stadium for the first time since May 7 and in front of a season-best crowd of 12,547 (the largest for a USL Championship match this season), New Mexico (7-3-4) simply could not find a way to break down Legion FC’s defense. The home team was outshot 15-8 and managed just one shot on goal.
With the exception of a Justin Portillo shot that caromed off the right post in the eighth minute, Birmingham goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel was rarely threatened.
Birmingham (7-4-4) picked up its fourth straight win and its third consecutive shutout. Legion FC has allowed just two goals in its last seven matches and came out of Saturday’s contest tied with NMU and Sacramento for the fewest goals conceded (12) in USL Championship play this season.
United coach Zach Prince credited Birmingham for setting the pace but he wasn’t satisfied with his team’s inability to change it.
“I didn’t like the way we looked throughout the entire match,” Prince said. “Never attacking, never dangerous. We allowed them to slow the pace of the game down and that can’t happen.”
New Mexico’s back-line ball movement was not crisp and its pass attempts over the top of Birmingham’s defense rarely connected.
“(Birmingham’s defenders) are good players,” Prince said, “and we didn’t challenge them nearly enough. We circulated the ball early too slowly. We came out collectively, as a group, slow tonight. Just not good enough.”
United’s defense, meanwhile, allowed more than one goal for just the second time this season — this time to a club that came into the evening with just 12 goals scored in its first 14 appearances.
But Birmingham also had not played a match since June 8 and appeared sharp and well-prepared from the opening whistle. Legion FC effectively spoiled United’s traditional “Magic Minute” when Juan Adelgo headed home a cross from Johnny Dean in the 21st minute.
New Mexico fans typically stand and cheer between 19:12 and 20:19 on the first-half clock, celebrating both their home state’s official addition to the United States and the club’s opening season.
Adelgo’s goal effectively quieted the fans a few seconds early.
Enzo Martinez made it 2-0 in the 29th minute, getting open in front of the net for a relatively easy tally. United goalkeeper Alex Tambakis had no time to react as Martinez’s low shot zipped into the net.
Trailing 2-0 at halftime, Prince tried numerous personnel changes in the second half but to little avail. Birmingham packed in its defense in the middle of the field, preventing United from mounting sustained pressure.
“We played into their hands,” Prince said.
Prince credited Saturday’s crowd for its intensity despite a rainy afternoon and despite a relative lack of fireworks by the home team.
“It’s incredible the way our fans support us,” he said. “We want to support them in return and the way to do that is by winning. We didn’t do that tonight. We have areas we need to improve and we will. We have to go and attack this week in training, get focused on our next game.”
United visits Monterey Bay FC next Saturday before returning for back-to-back home matches against Rio Grande Valley FC on July 6 and July 9.
MATCH STATS: Birmingham 2, United 0