Finally ‘Home’, United host Switchbacks FC

The last time that New Mexico United played a home match was way back on February 8th of this year. I’m not even sure you can count that as a real match. It was just an intra-squad practice that came about because the Switchbacks weren’t able to make it due to weather. If we’re talking actual competitive football, it’s now 11 months to the day since United last played a match in Albuquerque. 

October 19, 2019, was the date that United last played at home and was the date that they secured their first-ever playoff appearance. 

No one could have predicted how 2020 would have gone and United has done everything they could to try and make a home match happen. For the past month now, we’ve all been waiting to hear on a week by week basis whether or not United would be playing at home. This week we got a definitive answer for the remainder of the season; no matches at home. 

That decision came after the Governor of New Mexico, Michell Lujan-Grisham, refused to loosen up COVID-19 restrictions enough for the club to play at home. All around the USL, clubs have played at their home parks some with fans, some without, with success. And more importantly, without causing an outbreak. As an organization, United has only reported one positive test all season. That one positive wasn’t even a player or coach, and yet the club can’t play at home. 

And so, United must play all 16 regular season matches on the road. This likely also means any playoff matches as well. 

I can’t wait for the ESPN 30 for 30.

Today United gets to play a ‘home’ match against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. I don’t know what agreement the two clubs put in place for this to happen, but the short version is that United is renting Weidner Field for the day and the Switchbacks allowed 1,000 tickets to be sold to United supporters. Make no mistake, Weidner isn’t The Lab or even the UNM Soccer Complex for that matter. 1,000 fans aren’t the same as 15,000, but in this season, it’s an almost unprecedented number. 

To the players on the pitch though, it may not matter. 

It may just be enough that the fans are there. It may just be enough that there are United tifos. It may be enough for the players to hear the familiar chants. Maybe it will be enough to give it a true home match feel. 

No matter what the atmosphere around the match may be, United’s goal remains the same. They have to win. One of the factors that have played into the club’s success this season has been taking advantage of the substitution rule. It may not seem like much, but the ability to use two additional substitutes may be helping clubs like United more than others. To this point in the season, clubs have been able to use a possible 58 subs compared to 36 in a normal season. Head Coach Troy Lesesne has used 55 of a possible 58 subs (94.83%) while opposing clubs have only used 43 of 58 (74.14%). Given the way that United plays, employing a high press and using constant movement the increased number of subs has helped United keep fresh legs longer than other clubs. 

Another major factor in their success on the road has been their much improved defensive play. With four matches remaining, United has already equaled last season’s clean sheet total and could potentially demolish it. Although he hasn’t earned any Team of the Week nods this season, Kalen Ryden has proven to be one of the biggest off-season signings throughout the USL. Through 12 matches this season Ryden has racked up 52 clearances, 12 blocks, and 24 interceptions. Each of those stats leads the club. By comparison, as a member of Real last season, Ryden tallied 117/21/38 through the entire season. 

Between the addition of Ryden and the fluidity of changes within Lesesne’s system, the defensive efforts of the club have been vastly improved over last season. That’s not to say that there haven’t still been moments of uncertainty, but they’re far fewer. 

Projected XI

United supporters should watch for two things in today’s match. The first being the play of the midfield. Andrew Tinari and Juan Pablo Guzman have both had very good seasons to this point. Tinari has played so well that Jacob has even named him the mid-season MVP of the club. Against Colorado, the duo will need to drop back and help defend the top of the box, specifically to help shut down Aidan Daniels. Daniels scored in the previous meeting and has shown an aptitude for scoring at or near the top of the box. 

The second thing to watch for today is the transition play. United will need to maintain possession and work the ball forward. This also plays into controlling the midfield. By not giving the ball away in the middle third of the pitch, either while atacking or defending, United’s chances to get forward dramatically increase. Against a club that United has already taken seven points from this season, three more are easily withing reach if they can accomplish these golas. 

Players to Watch

Aidan Daniels – Dangerous from otuside the box, United didn’t always do a good job of closing him down prior to getting chances to shoot and they paid for it. By clsiing him  down and preventing him from either getting clean looks on goal or closing down his passing lanes, United will cut out a large part of their offense. 

Daniel Najem – Najem is a versatile player, capable of slipping into and out of both the midfield and defensive roles. By doing so, he’s also become involved in the final third and created scoring opportunities for the rest of the club. 

Today’s match is scheduled for a 3:30 pm (MT) kickoff from Weidner Field, where United will serve as host to the Switchbacks. The match will be streamed live on ESPN+ domestically and will be available for international viewers on YouTube. Locally, the match can be heard on ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM, via The TEAM app, or The TEAM website. Spanish language commentary can be heard on La Zeta 106.3 FM.