Man on the Pitch: OKC Energy FC Preview

By J.J. Buck

New Mexico United (2-1-1) at OKC Energy FC (1-1-2), Saturday, 6 p.m. mt, ESPN-plus

New Mexico United steps out of group play for a trip to Oklahoma City this weekend. The Energy are coming off a 1-1 draw at home against Rio Grande Valley FC. The Toros put the pressure on right from the opening whistle creating havoc all around OKC goal keeper C.J.Cochran. In the 11′ midfielder Deshane Beckford capped off a great run down the left side, which included a nutmeg on defender Atiba Harris, as he cut the ball back to his right foot and fired one past the keeper. RGV would lament the missed chances they had to build on their lead throughout the half and early in the second half (21 shots, five on goal). The game stayed 1-0 until the 88′ when forward Frank Lopez would capitalize off a long throw in flicked on by Harris to salvage a draw for the home side.

OKC Games Played Since the Restart

  • July 13th, 1-1 vs. FC Tulsa
  • July 17th, 3-1 win at Austin Bold
  • July 22nd, 1-1 vs. RGVFC

OKC appointed John Pascarella as their new manager following the conclusion of the 2019 season. Pascarella was an assistant coach with Minnesota FC before joining OKC. The formations he has used since the restart, 4-2-3-1 twice and a 4-4-1-1. You’re going to have two solid midfield blocks patrolling the turf field of Taft Stadium.

The Attack 

Forward (#9) Jamie Chavez is one of multiple players who joined OKC after playing for the now defunct Fresno FC franchise last season. The 32-year old striker scored 12 goals last year and leads OKC with two goals and five shots on target. Frank Lopez (#11) was promising young striker for LA Galaxy II as he scored 19 goals over 42 appearances during the 2018 and 2019 seasons. He scored eight times in 14 games after a loan spell to end last season with San Antonio FC. The 24-year-old from Cuba is a difference maker in the attack and whether he starts or subs on for Chavez as he did against RGV he is always a threat to score.

Providing support on the left wing is (#14) Kodai Lida. The Japaneses international played in the Canadian Premier League last season where he scored one goal in 20 appearances. Cordell Cato (#17) started opposite Lida, but he left OKC’s last match due to injury. Cato is a very experienced player who had 111 appearances with the San Jose Earthquakes from 2013-2017 before finding his way to the USL Championship. Jose Hernandez (#8) subbed on for Cato following his injury. Hernandez has a goal with two shots on target this season. The 24-year-old from Mexico City is starting to find his way as a professional after two years at UCLA (2016-17). He is one to keep an eye on in the attack.

Sitting in behind the forwards is (#10) Arun Basuljevic. The center-attacker is another player from Fresno making an impact with the Energy. Ray Saari (#25) has only played 87 minuets this season, but the 25-year-old can help settle in possession as he has completed 92.2% of his passes this season.

Holding Serve

Veteran Rafael Garcia (#7) will sit in front of the back four and provide plenty of assistance as the teams corner taker and a key midfield link as they play out of the back. Garcia has a team high seven chances created. His partner at center-defensive mid is (#6) Brad Dunwell. After only five appearances last season with RGV, Dunwell has started three games this season splitting time with (#19) Charlie Ward.

D-D-D-Defense

The back line is where the fun starts. Atiba Harris (#15), the 35-year-old representing Saint Kitts and Nevis, is a constant presence in the box on both sides of the pitch. The center back is the team leader in clearances (22), interceptions (10) and blocks (5). Harris has 31 career MLS goals with six different teams. He has a goal and an assist this season. Rounding out the CB pairing is (#13) Nicolas Taravel. In his second season with the Energy the 6’2” defender from France plays simple and quality passes out of the back with a passing accuracy of 84.4% just behind the team leader, Harris, at 89.1%.

The fullbacks, (#22) Zachary Ellis-Hayden and (#3) Kyle Hyland, are second and third on the team in chances created with five and four respectively. Ellis-Hayden won’t hesitate to join the attack as he also has three shots on goal (one assist). Keep an eye on who starts on the left wing for United to see how they attack the space vacated by the right back. (#4) Christian Ibeagha is a veteran defender who adds depth across the back line.

C.J. Cochran (#2) is the teams new number one keeper. Cochran started all 35 games for Fresno last season and has played every minuet in net this year. He has 14 saves with five goals against through four games played.

NM vs. OKC Results from 2019

  • 1-1 draw in Albuquerque.
  • 3-1 win for NM in OKC.

United for a Common Goal

As the sports world continues to navigate through the challenges presented to us all during this global pandemic, New Mexico United have become road warriors. They played their first game of the season on the road in Austin, Texas. Since the restart they have not been allowed to play a home game due to state safety regulations. That will continue for at least another week as United’s August 8th match against Phoenix has been moved from Albuquerque to Arizona.

In United’s favor right now is the time in between matches. They had nine days between their two game with El Paso and have a week between their trip to Oklahoma City then Phoenix. Even in an empty stadium there are benefits to playing at home. Not having to travel on game day as they did on their last time out is one. Navigating state protocol, USL safety procedures and individual responsibility could lead to a lot of problems. Head coach Troy Lesesne isn’t worried his team will fall victim to the off field challenges.

“We don’t look for excuses at any turn. Excuses are out there and they’re reasonable, but we’re not going to succumb to that,” Lesesne said on this weeks Zoom conference call.

He praised his players focus and willingness to do what is needed right now to get the job done.

“Culture is a cliched word that is often overused,” said Lesense. He went on to elaborated on what that means for his team, “it radiates off a group of people and I see it everyday with our guys. I see it on the bus trips whenever we are driving here, there and everywhere. You only arrive at that by strong leadership and that starts with our captain, Josh Suggs, to Devon (Sandoval) to Cody (Mizell), to Chris Wehan and so on and so forth.”

New Mexico showed that in their 2-1 win at El Paso which was one of their best overall performances as a team including last year. El Paso had zero shots on target in the first half and when Mizell was called on late United’s keeper made two crucial saves.

“At the end of the day we are fighting for clean sheets and it all has to go to the guys in front of me to do the work to limit those opportunities,” Mizell said Wednesday.

The goal against was the result of a foul called in the box on a sliding Kalen Ryden. A call immediately questioned by everyone in yellow, but they would get a favorable whistle of their own in the 92′ leading to a penalty attempt from Wehan. While ‘Beezer’ had his shot saved, he did score the first goal of the game and has been playing at an unbelievable level since the restart impacting every area of the game. Wehan tracked back to win the ball at mid-field in the waning moments of the first half which seconds later led to what would be the game winning goal from Sandoval.

“I love being in front of goal, but I am also the kind of player that I’ll do what ever is needed for the team to win. Whether that’s to slide back in center-mid, defend, press and just try to keep another team from scoring,” Wehan said when asked about his box-to-box ability.

Wehan almost wasn’t in position to score his third goal of the season, a ball passed on from Sandoval off a Josh Suggs free kick.

“I haven’t taken a free kick in a year,” said Suggs as he explained what was going through his mind, “I almost in the moment told Chris he should take it.”

Suggs listened to his coaches who put him in position to send an in-swinger into the box and it paid off. The captain played a full 90′ in his return to the lineup. It was a big addition as United’s depth is paying off as it is being tested. Saalih Muhammad started at CB and earned praise from his teammates. A center-mid by trade, Muhammad stepped up with Sam Hamilton and Justin Schmidt out due to injuries. All six goals scored by the Energy this season have come from inside the 18-yard box. Full back Manny Padilla was released from the team following new allegations that arose regarding sexual misconduct allegations while a student at the University of San Francisco.

United’s July 24th Lineup Against El Paso

The dynamic-duo of Devon Sandoval and Chris Wehan have fond memories of OKC from last season. Sandoval recorded a brace while Wehan capped off the scoring in the 71′.

The two have stepped up leading United’s attack through the restart. It is the work that they have contribute in other areas that has their coaches attention and is adding to what has been the most noticeable difference for the team this season, the defense.Yes, that is true even without a clean sheet through four games.

“There’s not a lot of teams that have a nine and a ten in Chris Wehan and Devon Sandoval that do the type of work that they do,” Lesense said adding, “our guys do both things, they score, they create, but that last thing they add is they make it miserable for any opponents back four.”

Keep an eye on Sandoval during goal kicks and set pieces. His hold up play and passing creates openings in the attack. Wehan has been key to the press jumping opponents who possess deep in their own end and providing constant energy for the entire time he is on the pitch.

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