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United holds on for a 2-1 win over Lights FC

May 4 – New Mexico United had to scratch, claw and dig very deep into the roster on Saturday evening in Las Vegas.

The payout – three points – was worth it.

Daniel Bruce scored two first-half goals in his first USL Championship start of the season, Abdi Mohamed had an assist in his first match with the club and New Mexico held on for a nail-biting 2-1 win over Las Vegas Lights FC at Cashman field.

United (5-2-1) spent most of the second half defending and had to turn away a number of close calls along the way. But with its roster thin due to injury and playing on the road for the sixth time in eight games, New Mexico was content with whatever win it could get.

“We came through the gauntlet,” United coach Eric Quill said in a post-match interview. “I am proud of the group because they have recovered from last week. Everyone worked a shift and grumbled. That is sometimes necessary.”

United had plenty of opportunities to avoid the nail-biting finish, beating Las Vegas 16-14 and putting ten shots on target to the home side’s five. But the visitors failed to get a third goal past Lights FC goalkeeper Raiko Arozarena, who made several brilliant stops, including one after Mukwelle Akale’s penalty early in the second half.

Still, NMU goalkeeper Alex Tambakis and his backline stepped up when necessary, denying Las Vegas a pair of scoreless chances in the closing minutes and deflecting 10 Lights FC corner chances.

“That was probably the best first half we’ve played all year,” Quill said. “The penalty changed the momentum and the second half was a battle, but we fought through it.”

Saturday night’s start was in stark contrast to United’s slow opening in the previous match, a 3-0 loss at Tampa Bay. This time it was New Mexico that set the pace, forcing Lights FC into turnovers and forcing the action on the offensive end.

After a few close misses in the opening ten minutes, United capped a run of consistent pressure with a dazzling 1-2-3 goal. Marco Micaletto tapped the ball forward from the top of the penalty area, Mohamed headed the ball towards the left post and Bruce smashed home a left-foot shot in the 13th minute.

Bruce struck again in the 30th minute thanks to Nanan Houssou’s well-placed lead from midfield. Bruce collected the ball on the right wing and fired a shot from 25 yards past Arozarena for a 2-0 lead.

New Mexico had their way for almost the entire first 40 minutes, but Las Vegas broke through with a transition opportunity in the 44th minute. Valentin Noel fired a through ball to Gaoussou Samake, in front of the NMU defense on the left wing, and he used a quick hesitation move to open up and fire past Tambakis to make the score 2-1.

United almost conceded an insurance goal after Akale rounded a Lights FC defender and was brought down in the penalty area in the 47th minute. But Arozarena dove and got a hand on Akale’s penalty and Las Vegas was able to clear the ball.

Arozarena’s save seemed to change the momentum after New Mexico had 57% of the ball in the first half. Las Vegas controlled the ball for most of the final 40 minutes and stoppage time, forcing New Mexico to defend its own goal for long stretches.

In fact, Lights FC’s best chance to pull back came five minutes into stoppage time when Edison Azcona converted a well-placed cross with a sliding shot from ten yards out. His open shot flew straight into the arms of Tambakis and New Mexico managed to burn the remaining time.

United definitely fell short on Saturday, as regular players Harry Swartz, Will Seymore and Sergio Rivas were not on the 18-man roster. The injured Kalen Ryden, Cristian Nava and Abu Danladi were also absent.

As a result, NMU coach Eric Quill went with a lineup for the first time with Houssou as striker, Bruce as striker and Mohamed – who the club signed a 25-day contract on Friday – as left back. Quill also sent on four late substitutes, including former La Cueva High standout Jackson DuBois, who is on an academy contract.

“Mohamed was incredible,” Quill said. “To go out and play 90 minutes with new teammates when he hasn’t played for so long, that’s not easy. I’m proud of Jackson, coming in and making his USLC debut in stoppage time. Just a great group performance tonight. “

The makeshift setup worked and United ended its final three-match road trip with two wins. The team returns home for two matches this week, with MLS hosting Real Salt Lake for the US Open Cup match on Wednesday and Oakland Roots SC on Saturday, May 11.