By J.J. Buck
New Mexico United at Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC – Saturday – 6 p.m. MT
You can add ‘Road Warriors’ to New Mexico’s ‘Kings of Chaos’ moniker which was bestowed upon them by El Paso Locomotive broadcaster Duke Keith. After taking nine points from three wins over the span of eight days last week, United had a week at home to recharge ahead of their third trip to Colorado Springs since July 11th.
”I think it’s unprecedented in a lot of ways what the players are doing right now, in a normal environment let alone the environment we’ve been in this year, I think it’s a testament to their character,” United head coach Troy Lesesne said on this weeks conference call. Despite the success he know’s their road journey is far from over.
“I think we have a lot more work to do, that’s in front of us and it’s going to get more difficult. Potentially with home matches still being a question for us,” said Lesesne.
Their next potential home date, September 5th against the Locomotive, has been moved to El Paso as they continue to navigate state health orders. At 6-2-1 United sits atop Group C with 19 points, all of which they have earned on the road.
When asked if they might just be better off not playing at home Lesesne gave a light chuckle saying, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
Without fans in attendance what would be the benefit to playing at home? For one you don’t have to sit on a bus for hours and the simple comforts of home.
“I think being on the road has sort of become the new normal,” midfielder Chris Wehan said of the teams attitude, but he knows there is no place like home.
“Nothing like waking up in your own bed and really being in control of your own meals, rest and recovery going into games,” Wehan added.
The fans have made an impact on the team even without being able to fill the stands at Isotopes Park. The Curse, United’s supporters group, have organized send-offs with fans cheering as they leave the team facility or waiving flags on overpasses as the team drives by. Recently they started an adopt-a-player program which has really caught the players attention. The fans assemble a care package for the player they are assigned and fill it with everything from snacks to personal notes.
“We have a community here that the appreciation for what we’re doing is truly something that I have never seen before,” Lesesne said.
Knowing there are still so many people in their corner has helped the players who are are asked weekly about what keeps them motivated.
“There’s always a lot of people watching us. Not being sure if we were going to be able to play. It’s mainly being grateful for every opportunity that I get,” said winger Amando Moreno as he addressed what has pushed him through this unexpected season.
This week they face a team for the third time this season. A team that only has one win on the year and a team United has beaten twice.
How do the players stay locked in game-to-game?
“Our staff puts together a report. Spends a lot of time putting video together about how we’re going to exploit them and play them. To their credit I think that has made us prepared every game,” Wehan said of how the coaches keep things fresh for the players.
Just as the team looks for every little edge, the fans will do the same until they can fill the home stands once again.
It’s tradition! Our team was bid farewell at the training facility today by the best supporters in the league.
— New Mexico United (@NewMexicoUTD) August 29, 2020
The signing of center back Kalen Ryden not only brought an experienced defender to the team it aided in allowing Lesesne to implement a new formation, the 3-4-3.
“I wanted to have flexibility even last season to be able to go between systems (3-4-3 and 4-2-3-1). We didn’t have the personal necessarily last season to do that,” Lesesne said when asked about playing three at the back, adding, “Kalen was a massive signing for us in the off-season.”
Ryden has become the anchor defensively helping with the loss of fellow CB Justin Schmidt to season ending foot surgery. Austin Yearwood, Sam Hamilton and Rashid Tetteh have all had their chance playing in a back three.
Playing three at the back has allowed the team to be better in front of goal keeper Cody Mizell. Ten goals have been scored against United since the restart (eight games) five of which came against Phoenix Rising. The defensive coverage from the midfield and having three defenders behind the ball most of the time has limited opponents chances to find themselves one-on-one or free on a counter attack.
“I think we got it wrong verse Phoenix a little bit. I think that’s where we were a little bit too wide open in going back to a 4-2-3-1 and that’s on me. That’s not on the players,” Lesesne said thinking back on the match that Rising won 5-2.
Phoenix was able to isolate United defenders in one-on-one situations and create havoc in the final third. Ultimately, it comes down to how the players execute on the field regardless of formation.
“We shifted our focus from being system driven in year one to this year now we are a lot more principle driven. I think no matter what system we play we have certain principles both defensively and attacking wise that we are committed to that are applied really well,” said Lesesne.
New Mexico has been able to mesh talent and tactics and the results speak for themselves.
Down four at half to Austin Bold this past Wednesday the Switchbacks made history. They became the first team in the USL Championship to score four straight goals in the second half of play as they salvaged a point in a 4-4 draw. Christian Volesky, whose first of two goals scored kicked off the comeback, knows they can’t keep waiting until the final 45.
“It shouldn’t take going down 4-0, I think you heard that before from Coach and Andre (Lewis), but Its good to fight back, it shows our character as a group. But hopefully next game, we have a short turn around against New Mexico, we come out fighting from the get-go,” Volesky told the teams website following the game.
It was the second time this season the Switchbacks overcame a multi-goal deficit to grab a point. They overcame a two goal deficit while a man down against Real Monarchs on July 18th in a game that ended 3-3.
Winger Andrew Lewis, who also scored in the comeback, expressed a little more confidence and excitement in what they had just done saying, “If we can put a full 90 minutes together, I don’t see any team beating us. I don’t see it. Because there is no game that we lost where we can put our hands up and be like ‘Oh, this team was good today. They deserve to win.’ There is no game. If we can get these 90 together and run, we will be unstoppable this year.”
Round 1 (July 11th) – New Mexico 2-1 Colorado Springs
- Goals: 25′ Saalih Muhammad, 45+2 Aidan Daniels (assist Joan Cervos), 87′ Chris Wehan (Romeo Parkes).
- NM 10 shots, 5 on target (4 inside the box).
- COS 12/1, (7).
Round 2 (August 15th) – NM 1-0 COS
- Goals: 45′ Wehan (Amando Moreno).
- NM 6/3 (3).
- COS 11/3 (4)