Man on the Pitch: A United Performance

By J.J. Buck –

New Mexico United will travel to the west Texas town of El Paso for the sixth time this calendar year to play for a spot in the Western Conference Finals.

“I’m happy it’s them. We get to settle the score. I’m happy it’s at their place,” United forward Devon Sandoval said during this weeks Zoom call.

New Mexico United at El Paso Locomotive FC, 7:30 p.m.

There are not many surprises left between the rivals. They each won a game and played to a draw twice as Group C foes during the regular season.

United is heading back down south thanks to a 1-0 win at San Antonio last Saturday. Head coach Troy Lesesne called the victory the clubs best performance in two seasons.

“The performance was so sound, so gritty. There was a lot of quality, it was almost 60-40 possesion…in possession we were excellent. It’s phenomenal to keep a clean sheet over 120′ against a team that has scored a lot of goals at home this season.”

Chris Wehan scored in the 101′ of extra time and it wasn’t without a little controversy. Wehan’s elbow appeared to help control the ball leading to his shot on goal. While it wasn’t the most egregious goal on the night (see how Solomon Asante scored via super punch in the 114′) it counted and their is no looking back now.

Wehan on what was running through his mind before scoring, “Just kept thinking to myself how I didn’t want to go to penalty kicks…all it takes is one moment.”

Their work in training paid off as the extra 30 minutes did not appear to bog them down. However, they did notice the struggles of San Antonio.

Sandoval saw early on they might have an advantage fitness wise, especially when some San Antonio players started cramping late.

“To go 120′ in that fashion made me very proud,” said Sandoval.

Wehan added, “We’ve put in a lot of work this season. We know we’re fit. We know we’ll be able to go the distance.”

The other moment that caused a stir was an altercation between San Antonio defender Mitchell Taintor and Sandoval. The clip that spread on social media was of Taintor standing over Sandoval who was on the ground. Taintor made a motion with his upper body that fans interpreted as spitting. Sandoval took to Twitter to clear up the situation.

“They have my back. That’s what we do we have each others back,” Sandoval said when he was asked about how his teammates handled the altercation. He also knew United had an edge, “When you see Chris lifting me up there’s a smile on my face. At that moment I knew they lost their heads. We were going to win.”

Defender Sam Hamilton helped in securing the teams seventh clean sheet this season. He also feels like he is coming into his own with his fellow center backs.

“At this point in the year we’ve really gelled playing as a backline…just kind of figured out my roll there and have improved on some of my weaknesses as a defender,” said Hamilton.

He was also one to embrace the moment.

“For me personally it’s minute-by-minute,” Hamilton said when asked what it’s like on the pitch in the deciding minuets of a playoff game adding, “To be in the game at that moment with that importance and knowing what’s at stake, to me it’s my job to just enjoy it…Those types of game are so few and far between and they’re why you prepare the way that you do all year. For when that moment comes to be ready,”

New Mexico isn’t a squad that will settle for anything less than their best. They haven’t made excuses and look forward to every road trip because that means they are still alive.

“This group of players in particular have taken on a challenge this year under extreme circumstances, I said it a couple weeks ago, could be mission impossible for most clubs to do what we’ve done,” said Lesesne reflecting on their journey.

“You should never make the playoffs playing 15 matches on the road. You should never progress in the first round for the 16th match at a club like San Antonio that had such a tremendous year,” Lesesne said in amazement, but with full confidence in his players and coaches.

El Paso is coming if 120′ of soccer against Tulsa in their quarterfinal game last Saturday which was decided by penalty kicks. Saeed Robinson converted the winning PK as Locomotive advanced 4-2 after the teams played to a 2-2 draw. Tulsa survived a straight red card to defender Callum Chapman-Page in the 101′, but saw Moloto send his penalty attempt over the bar and Locomotive goal keeper Logan Ketterer stop Ariel Martínez.

“Give the guys great credit. We are pretty beat up right now in terms of the size and the fatigue level of the squad,” said Locomotive head coach Mark Lowery to the teams website postgame. “For them to grind out 120 minutes like they did, get in the attack and create the chances like they did was superb. I loved the way they showed composure throughout the shootout because that’s important. The four guys that stepped up to take those kicks were fantastic. It’s in these moments that I give the guys a lot of credit.”

The team lost striker Omar Salgado to an ACL injury in their last match against New Mexico. 34-year-old forward Leandro Carrijo scored a brace against Tulsa stepping into the starting lineup. While the Brazilian might play a different style than Salgado, Lesesne said he doesn’t expect a drop off in terms of the level of paly expected from El Paso’s attack.

“It’s going to be a battle. You saw that in the fourth time we played them. It was kind of a scrap. It was ugly for a long period of time,” said Lesesne who is making sure the team keeps the same attitude when it comes to preparing for an opponent, even if it is the sixth meeting this year. “That preparation is incredibly important…the team that is going to rise to the occasion on the night is the team that is going to execute and maybe want it a little bit more.”

There were a few things Lesesne knows need to improve from San Antonio to get a result Saturday night.

“We have to be tighter in possession. These playoff matches are definitely games of who’s going to make fewer mistakes and when you make fewer mistakes you have a chance to win a playoff match.”

El Paso has been able to implement their style of play more times than not against New Mexico this season. That has seen United on the back foot more than they would like as the possession stats from their last meeting were advantage Locomotive 59-to-41.

That plays into Lesesne wanting his team to be better with the ball. The team will take a look at El Paso’s set pieces against Tulsa and late game substitutions to see if anything has changed or a pattern emerges.

“We’ve had a hell of a season, just in terms of what we’ve gone through to get here,” said Wehan.

Here is a match that could send the second year franchise to a conference final. It’s only fitting that one more duel with their rival is on the ‘Road Warriors’ schedule.

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