United tops Tulsa FC for much-needed win

Aug. 26—New Mexico United got off to exactly the kind of start coach Eric Quill envisioned Saturday night.

In the end, it was just enough.

Harry Swartz and Sergio Rivas netted first-half goals and United snapped a five-game winless skid with a 2-1 victory over FC Tulsa at Isotopes Park.

New Mexico (9-10-5) took a 2-0 lead to halftime and held off a late surge by the visitors, sending an energetic crowd of 10,130 home happy. Marcus Epps got Tulsa (7-12-8) on the board in the 78th minute, and created a dramatic finish, but NMU's defense was up to the challenge.

"I'm proud of our response from the other night," Quill said, referring to a deflating 2-1 home loss to Oakland on Wednesday. "Turning the page that quickly is not easy, but I thought the first half was one of the best we've played. In the second half, guys were laying it on the line for each other. Just a good overall response."

The win moved New Mexico up a notch to ninth in the USL Championship Western Conference standings, just a point behind eighth-place Phoenix, which was playing a late match Saturday night. Perhaps just as important, it gave United a needed boost to hold off a desperate opponent on a night when many of the calls were not going its way.

United was whistled for seven yellow cards (two of them on the bench), while Tulsa picked up three. Several questionable calls in the second half (some replayed on the video board) had fans booing and making derisive chants.

New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis came up with several big stops in the closing minutes as FC Tulsa pressed hard for an equalizing goal. Tambakis finished with five saves, including a pair of difficult stops in stoppage time.

Nervous as the ending was for United fans, the first half was one to celebrate. Despite a steady drizzle that had umbrellas and rain gear appearing in the stands, United energized the crowd with a pair of highlight-reel goals.

Swartz struck first less than two minutes into the contest, settling a centering pass from newcomer Zico Bailey, turning and firing into the net for a 1-0 lead. It was Swartz's fourth goal of the season and got United off to the kind of fast start that Quill has repeatedly emphasized.

"It always feels great to start well," Bailey said. "That's something we talked about a lot in the locker room. It's nice to take that on the field and get it done."

Both teams had quality chances through the rest of the entertaining half before Rivas sent NMU to the locker room with momentum. Rivas headed home a well-placed cross from Jacobo Reyes on the right wing — the sixth goal this season for the Cibola High School alumnus.

Tulsa, which came into the match clinging to the final Eastern Conference playoff position, did its best to turn the tables in the second half. The visitors had the better of possession (57% overall), and forced New Mexico to spend much of the final 45 minutes playing defense.

With the exception of Epps' bender from the top of the penalty area, NMU's back line did enough. Kalen Ryden and Austin Yearwood came up with several big clearances to keep some of the pressure off Tambakis."All the statistics and everything sound great," Ryden said, "but the most important thing to me is getting three points. Defensively, we dug in and got the job done. I'm extremely happy with that."

New Mexico outshot Tulsa 17-13 overall, 8-6 in shots on target.

"It kills me when we don't send people home happy," Quill said. "It's so important — especially at home — to start fast, get that first goal and get people excited. It was great to see us start fast and finish the job tonight."

United's four-game homestand continues Wednesday when it hosts the Las Vegas Lights at 7 p.m. at Isotopes Park.