Rivalry Renewed: United face off against Phoenix Rising FC

Rivalries are one of the defining characteristics of sports. Often they are determined by geographic location, fervent fan bases or sometimes are conceived as a marketing ploy by leagues to sell tickets (looking at you MLS). No matter what their origins are, they quite often make for the best games to watch.

New Mexico United and Phoenix Rising FC are no different. Their encounters in 2019 were nothing short of epic, back and forth affairs with neither being able to best the other. Well, until the Open Cup that is. Ask a Rising supporter and they’ll say the Cup result was a draw. Pose the same question to a United supporter and they’ll say that the outcome was a win for United. Technically the result went into the books as a draw, but for argument sake, we’re calling it a win.

Regardless of your affiliation, this is the match to watch in 2020. It probably would have been the highest attended match for either club. Instead, the clubs are faced with an empty stadium and their supporters only being able to support from afar. After the location of the match was changed, it became even more difficult for United supporters.

Fortunately with some creativity, many were able to come up with ways to help give the club a send off as they left for Tempe. It also helps that United has reached, what appears to be, a short term tv rights deal with local broadcaster KOAT-7 to bring the match to all of New Mexico. In a season where fans likely won’t be able to attend any home match, this is the best possible scenario for United supporters.

Adding to the drama this season is the first match against former United player, Santi Moar.

Moar quickly became a fan favorite among the United supporters and had the best single-season of his career. His fiery, passionate play helped lead United to the playoffs in their first year of existence. Now though, he’s part of the enemy. I’m sure that if this match had actually been played in Albuquerque, and with fans in attendance, they would have shown Santi the appreciation he is due for the performance. As with any former player though, that kindness would have only lasted until the match kicked off.

Unfortunately for Santi, his time so far with Rising FC has been less than stellar. With only three appearances and just over 90 minutes played, his impact on Rising’s season has been minimal at best. A much more significant impact has been made by another of the Rising signings, Rufat Dadashov

The Azerbaijani international has combined with Junior Flemmings and Solomon Asante for 12 goals already. Sporting a conversion rate of nearly 22%, they’ve picked up from where they left off in 2019. Despite all their success, Phoenix has to feel as though their season was incomplete after failing to even win the Western Conference. They are looking to reach even farther this season and are making a case for themselves in what is turning out to be one of the tighter groups.

Returning keeper Zac Lubin has been a strong point for Rising FC’s push in 2020. Having saved 72.7% of the shots he has faced, Lubin is putting together a terrific season between the sticks. His command of the defense and communication has helped bring together a back line that saw a lot of turnover from the 2019 campaign.

Where Rising may have issues on Saturday night is breaking down United in the back. As impressive as their attack has been, United’s defense has withstood every test they have faced so far this season.

Player to Watch

Corey Whelan – As exciting as the Rising attack is, the outcome of this match will fall on the defensive play of both clubs. Whelan has stepped into a much larger role compared to 2019 and has shown himself to be more than capable of anchoring the defense for Phoenix. The question he faces this week is can he handle the creativity of the United attack?

United are once again proving in 2020 that they are the kings of the road. Without having played a single home match this season, and likely not being able to the rest of the way, United will have to find a way to maintain the momentum while dealing with the stresses of traveling every week. Not only have they been dealing with the stresses of being away from home, but every week the club has faced a number of injuries.

Normally very tight-lipped, it was divulged by Troy Lesesne this week that Justin Schmidt would miss significant time after having surgery on his foot. Schmidt, a regular in the team sheet in 2019 was expected to have a major role in this year’s plans. In his absence, Saalih Muhammad has seen an uptick in playing time, particularly at center back.

Projected XI vs Phoenix Rising FC

Muhammad, who is traditionally a midfielder, has made the adjustment to the defender seem easy. Playing alongside Kalen Ryden has allowed Muhammad to grow in the role and that partnership is paying dividends in the standings.

United is one of five clubs to go undefeated since the restart and will have their hands full in Tempe. We know that both clubs can score, but can they defend at a level they need to in order to get enough stops.

Player to Watch

Kalen Ryden – Once again we have to look to the defensive side of the pitch. Ryden has proved himself against some of the toughest competition in the USL. Now he gets a chance to do so against Phoenix Rising. Communication will be huge for United as they try to prevent Asante and Flemmings from running rampant in the box.

On the podcast this week, Jacob and I both predicted that United would get the win by a final of 3-2. Tune in Saturday night at 8:30 p.m. (mountain) to see if we were correct. The match will be broadcast live on ESPN+. The match can also be heard on ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM, via The TEAM app and the website. Spanish language commentary will be broadcast on La Zeta 106.4 FM.