Man on the Pitch: United’s Playoff Focus

By J.J. Buck

New Mexico United at San Antonio F.C., Saturday – 7 p.m.

If there could only be two words uttered this week around the United facility they would be consistency and principles. As New Mexico prepares for their playoff match Saturday at San Antonio, winners of Group D, they are focusing on what got them to this point.

“We do have really strong principles and those principles don’t change. Formations might, but the style and principles don’t change,” manager Troy Lesesne said on this weeks Zoom call.

United spent the weekend watching results trickle in with their main focus on El Paso. Locomotive won 4-0 in Salt Lake City to clinch the top spot in Group C. A loss or draw would have sent United to play Rio Grande Valley F.C. Tuesday with a chance to win the group as they would be making up a previously postponed match. Instead, United got a chance to refocus Monday on the task at hand.

Monday morning was the first time Lesesne was able to be around the team following the birth of his child. Assistant coach Zach Prince stepped up once again leading the team in their 1-0 win last Wednesday against Real Monarchs.

Lesesne said the group looked refreshed and credited the work his assistants have put in all year, including that of Prince, saying, “they make me look good.”

New Mexico did look different on the pitch this season. They were much less of a roller coaster ride defending better as a team and as they saw out results on a weekly basis. You do have to take into account the group play against teams in Colorado Springs and SLC who combined to win five games this season, but United didn’t lower their standards in those matches.

“That consistency it begins in preseason before Covid, before the Austin game, it begins way back then,” Prince said of process that not only helped the team stay on track, but helped him when he was called upon to lead.

It’s easy to say, but what does it all mean?

“There’s a couple things I take great pride in. It’s the responsibility of the players. They take on a lot of accountability. We trust every single one of them and we collaborate with them. We want to know what they think about different decisions and moves throughout the season that makes us feel like were all a part of it,” Lesesne said of the culture that this years team has embraced.

United finished the season 8-4-3 and yes played every game on the road. A year that many didn’t think would happen following the postponement of the season to understand how to move forward in a global pandemic. A year in which it would have been easy to make excesses for not playing your best. That didn’t happen for United.

Goal keeper Cody Mizell was asked what things looked like from his perspective in goal saying, “I think the biggest thing is it tells the character of our group.”

“The amount of shots I’ve faced through 15 games this year is a lot less and the amount of clean sheets has gone up drastically through that time. I think it’s the character of our group and the principles that we installed, like Zach Prince said, in January and that’s consistently been going on through early on in preseason, quarantine and now through the regular season,” Mizell added.

United secured six clean sheets through 15 games which tied them for third most in the western conference and only four teams conceded less than their 17 goals.

Defensively, center back Kalen Ryden is going to get a ton of praise for solidifying the back line. The development and structure of the team has made his addition so impactful. Second year fullback Austin Yearwood became someone the team could rely on playing as part of a back three. Sam Hamilton who exceled at the end of last season playing as a center-mid stepped back in as a center back. Josh Suggs thrived as a wingback being pushed more up the field. It has been the commitment to the teams style of play, high press and close down opponents in the final third, that has United confident for whatever they face.

“I think the biggest takeaway from this year to last year is we have a deeper squad and I think, as you can see from Wednesdays game, anyone can step on the field and we can get three points and advance in the tournament,” Mizell said of the teams growth.

Following four months with nothing to watch as a sports fan we are seeing everything come to a close at once. A Stanley Cup champion was crowned in a Canadian bubble. The NBA Finals are being contested in Orlando and Major League Baseball is into their division series. Players are remembered differently in the postseason.

“For me personally, I wish there was a playoff Ryden that I didn’t know about that scored hat tricks in the playoffs,” Ryden joked when asked about any postseason alter egos.

There were plenty of questions for the defender who won last years USL Championship with Real Monarchs about wisdom he is imparting to his teammates. While Ryden didn’t want to overstep or oversell his knowledge, his teammates know what to expect.

“This year we have a lot more leadership and personalities within our squad. Kalen just did it last year, he won the whole thing. Having him is a massive asset mentality wise and what it takes to win the whole league,” Mizell said addressing what that experience can mean for everyone else.

Lesesne managed to keep things light at the end of Monday’s Zoom call pointing out a mustache that Rydan is sporting and hoping it can become more than that.

“He’s got that mustache, you can tell a playoff bread might be forming and I like that. I hope it’s a long one. If I start growing mine out I might have a little bit of peach fuzz by the championship match,” Lesesne said.

The winner of Saturday’s match will play El Paso or Tulsa. The other two Western Conference Quarterfinals have Reno hosting L.A. Galaxy II and Phoenix hosting Sacramento F.C.

San Antonio F.C.  

The winners of Group D finished the season 10-3-3 with 30 goals scored and 14 goals against. Following a 2-1 loss to Austin in their regular season finale head coach Alen Marcina was focused on learning heading into the playoffs.

“When we win, tie or lose it’s about learning,” said Marcina to the teams website.

“We will learn from areas we did well and the areas where we need to improve. We need to put this match behind us. Now, it’s about playoff mode, playoff mentality and playoff scripts. We have to change the mindset and now we are focused on putting up a good performance against New Mexico, who are a very strong team. We need to make sure we put our best foot forward and put on a show for our fans in the first round of the playoffs.”

One the left a 3-4-1-2 on the right 3-4-2-1.

SAFC has played with three at the back this season varying their midfield or attacking set up for players or opponent.

San Antonio’s attack is lead by (#9) Luis Solignac. The 29-year old Argentinian scored nine goals in 57 appearances for the Chicago Fire from 2016-2018. He led SAFC with eight goals on a team high 29 shots with 14 on target this season and wears the captains arm band.

(#10) Cristian Parano was the teams second leading scorer (4 goals/4 assists) and can play up top or on the wing. Marcina has two two players who can create from the midfield (#6) Victor Giro and (#17) Jose Gallegos. Giro leads the team with 24 chances created and is the leader in passes out of midfield. Gallegos is right on his tail with 23 chances created. The 19-year-old is a rising star for SAFC.

In his first year with the club veteran center back (#20) Mitchell Taintor has become the leader of the back line. The Rutgers product leads the team with 61 clearances through 15 games. The back three becomes five when wingbacks (#23) Blake Smith and (#31) Connor Maloney drop back. Both are solid additions to the attack and are two-of-the top three in team minuets played along with Taintor.

In goal (#37) Matthew Cardone has started 11 games and (#97) Dayne St. Clair five. Goals against; Cardone 11, St. Clair 3.

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