After 574 days, it was time. On May 15, New Mexico United played a game at Rio Grande Credit Union Field at Isotopes Park in front of 8,657 wild fans—the largest attendance of any USL Championship game this season. United earned their first victory of the 2021 campaign by defeating Austin Bold FC 3-1.
Tailgaters gathered early and propped up cornhole boards and popped up mini goals on the small strips of grass next to the parking lot. As the smoke lifted from grills and cups filled from growler pours, blissful fans blared music and tossed bags while children mimicked their favorite United stars. Black and yellow tops and replica kits filled the spaces between cars until the swarm of fans migrated toward the stadium to claim seats well before the first whistle.
Supporters pressed against each other as they entered through the gates when access was first granted. Face coverings were mostly donned and social distancing was a mere suggestion as The Curse packed the section behind the south goal. With the CDC relaxing their health recommendations days before the game, the inevitable was accepted rather than considered a violation. Horns resonated, drums pounded, flags waved and chants echoed through the concourse as the anticipation grew.
“It’s been a long time coming,” United defender Kalen Ryden said. “I kind of just took a moment, as we came out for warmups I paused, and I just stood on top of the 18 and did a 360 look around, panorama, and just soaked it all in. It was a beautiful moment.”
The players were just as eager. United (1-1-1) moved a tad quickly in the first 10 minutes of play and had trouble maintaining possession and constructing quality scoring chances. Then it happened. Sergio Rivas, fittingly an Albuquerque native and playing in his first game for United, buried a header off a cross from Harry Swartz in the 18th minute. The crowd went berserk.
Rivas shared, “Being able to perform in front of my people, my city, it’s truly a blessing. It was one of the moments when I scored and you just don’t feel anything. You’re just floating; it was an amazing moment. I’m just happy to be able do this for my city, my hometown.”
The remainder of the first half provided solid defense and minimal scoring opportunities for both sides. Austin (0-0-1) immediately increased the pace a minute into the second half as substitute Nick Hinds placed the equalizer in the bottom corner of the net. United upped the pressure from that point on.
Brian Brown, just moments after coming in for Devon Sandoval, chipped Austin goalkeeper Hugo Fauroux to give United a 2-1 lead in the 61st minute. It was also Brown’s first tally as a member of United.
Five minutes later, Amando Moreno headed in United’s third goal off an Andrew Tinari cross, extending the lead. Behind the excitement and joy of the fan base, the team’s energy was constant as they fended off the attacks and chipiness of a desperate Austin side.
“Knowing that we were playing at home, our first game here, we were just excited,” Moreno explained. “We were aggressive the whole time. We were hungry.”
United’s return was great, but their victory was golden. After the team captured the state’s heart in 2018, the momentum of their inaugural season never subsided.
The timeline of professional sports has been a great gauge of progression through the pandemic. First, sports were cancelled. Shortly after, European soccer, golf and NASCAR decided to compete with no fan access. Then the NHL and NBA created bubbles and gave us champions. The World Series was hosted by a neutral site with minimal attendance, as was the College Football Playoff. The NFL completed a full season and college basketball gifted us a version of March Madness. Finally, we started seeing more fans on a consistent basis sprinkle baseball stands and gradually fill other stadiums more and more.
Now, New Mexico was able to contribute to the triumphant and hope-filled full return of sports. These fans, just like the players, yearned for a return to normal. Seeing United win at home while New Mexicans rubbed shoulders, toasted drinks and cheered ecstatically together, is exactly that: normal. Welcome home. Welcome back.
Head coach Troy Lesesne simply stated of the opener, “I would describe tonight’s experience as ineffable.”
United travels to play the Colorado Springs Switchbacks tonight (May 21), and will host Loudoun United FC on May 29.