By J.J. Buck –
New Mexico United will take the field for the first time since March 7th this Saturday in Colorado Springs when they face Switchbacks FC. The bus ride north is a reminder that even as sports return things are far from normal. Empty stadiums await most teams, pending state decisions, as players are tested for Covid-19 and teams are required to bus to matches that are within 500 miles. It’s just one of the many new realities laid out in the USL Championship’s return to play agreement with the players.
The USL will be the first professional league playing in their home cities. No bubble for the 35 team league that features a western and eastern conference whose only meeting is when the conference champions play in the title game. To deal with losing four months of the season each conference was split into groups which will feature round robin play and a few out of group games to get teams to 16 games played. The top two teams in each group will advance to the playoffs. United was grouped with Colorado Springs, El Paso Locomotive and last years USL Champions the Real Monarchs (Salt Lake City). United’s opener, a 1-0 loss at Austin Bold FC, will count as one of their out of group games as will all the league results prior to the suspension of play.
- Switchbacks FC 1-0-0, 3pts (2-1 win at OKC)
- El Paso Locomotive, 0-0-1, 1pt (0-0 draw at OC)
- New Mexico United, 0-1-0, 0pts (1-0 loss at AUS)
- Real Monarchs, 0-1-0, 0pts (1-0 loss at SA)
(The title, ‘Man on the Pitch’ is from what my roll was going to be, sideline reporter for the home broadcasts on ESPN+, until life tossed us a curveball. I look forward to that opportunity when it is safe for us to be together in a stadium. Until then enjoy the writing!)
New Mexico’s starting lineup in their opener featured five new players. The team sheet read 4-4-2, but as we saw last year head coach Troy Lesesne allows players to float which saw Chris Wehan making center runs while the wingers pushed forward. Re-watching the game this week United did have solid moments building an attack, however, they lacked the touch in the final third to put one past Bold’s goal keeper. The difference came in the 52′ when Andre Lima converted a penalty kick for Austin which would be the only goal of the match.
“I really can’t say enough good things about where the players are in terms of form right now after being away from any kind of team environment for so long,” Lesesne said in a phone interview this week.
Under state and USL protocol United began small group training a few weeks ago and in the last week were permitted to begin full contact training. Midfielder David Estrada described what he has seen from his teammates in an interview on The Opening Drive saying, “You can tell that guys did the work. It’s been pretty sharp for guys being away longer than an off-season.”
With just 15 games United won’t have a lot time to makeup for mistakes or develop a new style. Even with the limited time together Lesesne is confident in his teams chemistry thanks to Zoom meetings early on where they stressed the teams culture and expectations on the field.
Estrada has noticed the scouting done by Lesesne and his staff to bolster this years roster.
“I think we have a lot more depth this year were we’re going to be able to bring guys on that you’re not going to see a drop off.” He added, “I’m excited to see each and everyone of these guys defend these colors.”
One of those new players is the 6-foot-5 Jamaican international on loan from Sligo Rovers, Romeo Parks. You don’t see many players his size flying up and down the wings. A pacey player, Lesesne touted Parks willingness to work back defensively while also being a force up top. With the departure of Santi Moar and Kevaughn Frater, who combined to score 25 goals last season, there are goals to be had in United’s lineup.
Looking to setup and add to those total’s is Amando Moreno who started on the opposite wing (right) week one. Moreno spent last season with Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. The New Jersey native will be eager to show off his quick dribble and ability to fire off shots after cutting inside. Former USL rookie of the year Chris Wehan, who had the second most assist on the team with six last season, found himself making multiple runs into Austin’s box as a target for crosses. Wehan can finish chances (10 goals last year), but seems to really assert himself when he gets to play under a striker as a number 10. New Mexico had a lot of success last year playing a 4-2-3-1. With United expected to lean on striker Devon Sandoval this would be a formation the aforementioned three could settle into underneath their loan forward making their runs forward.
“I think in the beginning you are going to see a defensive mindset from a lot of teams. You want to get that right first.,” Lesesne said when asked about if a certain style of play might emerge from teams early. United knew they needed to be stronger on defense with fullbacks who love to get forward.
Defender Kalen Ryden was signed from Real Monarchs and started the opener opposite Justin Schmidt at center back. Ryden showed off his acceleration which will help him recover, but the biggest impact will be his confident defending. Second year defender Rashid Tetteh had plenty of quality moments during year one giving the team some depth at the position. Sam Hamilton can play at CB and added minutes as a center defensive mid.
Speaking of those fullbacks the teams assist leader from last year, Manny Padilla (seven assists) returned along with captain Josh Suggs (missed the Austin game due to injury) and Austin Yearwood. Newcomer David Najem got the nod over Yearwood in the opener. The key to holding things together for the back line comes from the defensive midfield positions.
Veteran Juan Pablo Guzman has no problem holding serve in front of the center backs. The same goes for Saalih Muhammad. The 25-year-old turned heads defensively last year. Andrew Tinari is a MF who brings more of an ability to open up play in the attack. Tinari did get some corner kick duty against Austin.
Cody Mizell continues as the teams number one keeper. The fiery ‘El Gato Naranja’ was tied for the ninth most saves in the USL last season with 87. He’ll be backed up by by German international Phillip Beigl who was with TSV Landsberg last year. Ben Beaury was the teams number two keeper coming into the season, but he was loaned to Reno 1886 FC this week.
Quick Hits on the Rest
Rookie Sammy Sergi was one of three substitutes used in the opener. The 6-foot-2 forward scored 29 goals during his four year collegiate career at Xavier. He’s an option as a number nine.
Winger Daniel Bruce, the electric second year player out of the University of Charlotte via the United Kingdom, became a super sub with pace for days against the tired legs of opponents.
Ryan Williams enters year two of his professional career with 15 appearances and two goals. He can play up top or slot into the midfield.
David Estrada brings a calming presence to the pitch. The 30-year old is comfortable in whatever roll is asked of him on the field.
Joris Rudolph Elavagnon Ahlinvi made his way to play at Florida International then Indiana University after an academy career in France. The forward played for Valenciennes and Montpellier before his collegiate career and has yet to appear for United.
New Mexico ‘Out of State’ United?
On Thursday New Mexico Governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, announced changes to the states Covid-19 protocol. This included the postponement of high school fall contact sports and that she would suggest to the board of higher education that the University of New Mexico and New Mexico State not participate in fall contact sports.
This was said about United as tweeted by Geoff Grammer of the Albuquerque Journal, “I’m struggling to find a safe path” for the New Mexico United season, but wanted to give them a “shout out” for how they’re trying to stay safe and quarantine the team.”
United responded in a press release Thursday night saying, “As the governor mentioned, we are working together to move forward in our 2020 season. We feel confident in the stringent protocols set forth by our league and are following them to the highest degree.