United look to bolster playoff seeding in El Paso

As strange as the 2020 calendar year has been, one thing remains the same: the calendar flipping to September means it’s time to start looking at the playoffs. Any other year we’d be talking about who might get a first-round bye or who will do just enough to grab a play-in spot. The new group play format may have eliminated some of the drama, but there’s still plenty of intrigue surrounding the playoffs.

While most of the groups are already showing some separation between the top and bottom clubs, there are a handful that still have a range of possibilities. For instance, take Group E. I know that it’s from the Eastern Conference, but it’s the best example out there. All five clubs are within six points of each other, and within two wins.

That’s the beauty of playoff football. Nothing is decided until it’s decided.

By my math, there are three clubs who are already all but eliminated from playoff contention: Atlanta United 2, Rio Grande Valley FC (sorry, Ron!), and Portland Timbers 2. Sure, they still mathematically have a chance, but with all three of them sitting with a less than 1% chance or making it, their seasons will come to an end before October.

I already mentioned Group E as one that has a number of possibilities. Groups B, D, and G all have the makings for some drama in the final few weeks of the season as well. The other groups are all but decided, with the only thing left to determine is the final placement of the top two sides. For our purposes we’ll look at Groups C and D and what could potentially happen.

As you can see from the table above, with a couple more favorable results for United or El Paso and Colorado Springs and the defending champion Monarchs will see their season snuffed out. That’s not to say that they’re out of hope, but they are longshots at this point. The more important race will be the points between United and El Paso.

When United and El Paso face off tonight from Southwest University Park, the best possible result for the men in yellow is of course a win. Three points tonight would extend United’s lead to eight points over El Paso. This is extremely important since Locomotive has a match in hand and their remaining schedule looks to be fairly soft outside of San Antonio. With only a handful of matches remaining, every point matters. Especially when United likely wants to try and avoid San Antonio in the playoffs.

With the playoff format this year, the top club in Group C would face off against the second place club in Group D. The inverse is also true, the winner of Group D would face whoever finishes second in Group C. If the season ended today, United would face Austin Bold FC and San Antonio would face El Paso. Now, I’m not opposed to the San Antonio and El Paso matchup. El Paso would likely lose, which is never a bad thing.

The concern would be United against Austin Bold. The two sides have already met once this year with Bold taking the win in the season opener. I wouldn’t say that I or any other United supporter is scared of Austin Bold, I just think that a match against FC Tulsa gives our club the best chance to advance.

2020 USL Playoff Bracket

United has to get there first and that starts with a win tonight.

The series between the two clubs has to this point swung in United’s favor. Unbeaten through four matches, including three matches in El Paso, it would be hard to pick against United. For the guys over at FiveThirtyEight though, they still seem to like El Paso.

Sure, they only have them as a slight favorite, but you would think that since El Paso has never defeated United at home, and United’s away form has been pretty darn good this year it would swing a little closer to United. But who am I to second guess the experts over at a huge analytical website.

If the previous four matches are any indication of what will take place tonight, we’re in for a hard-fought match. While the two more recent editions haven’t been as marred with yellow cards, they haven’t been without dramatic moments. United will look to avoid those while earning three more points on the road.

El Paso has been on a run of good form over the past month, going 3-1-1 during that time. Despite the improved series of results, they’ve still struggled to find consistency in the final third. Yes, they’ve scored seven goals across the four most recent matches, but no player has been consistent enough to have a significant impact. Two of their top scorers haven’t found the net in a month.

What’s really been keeping them in matches has been their defensive play. Locomotive keeper Logan Ketterer and the defensive players in front of him have only allowed 10 goals in the 2020 campaign, earning themselves four clean sheets along the way. After losing some of the main attackers from 2019, it was imperative that they become better defensively. Even with those improved efforts, they haven’t figured out how to stop United. Of the goals conceded this season, 40% of them have gone to New Mexico.

El Paso’s keys to this match:

  • Beat the press
  • Control the midfield
  • Get Mares and Gomez involved early and often

While it’s easy to see this match as a must-win for El Paso in their quest to try and overtake first place, it’s almost as important for United. Until first place is secured, every match will have a significance to it. Not only to try and avoid San Antonio, but also to continue carrying momentum into the playoffs.

Last year, United struggled down the home stretch and only snuck into the playoffs on the last weekend of the season. This season, they have their destiny in their own hands. To this point, they’ve put together one of the most impressive seasons in USL history. Sure, there was a record-breaking season last year, but United are doing something that no other club has ever done; play every match on the road. I’ve looked back quite a ways and I can’t find another instance of this ever happening.

At this point, I don’t think there has been a more impressive season.

To the matter at hand though, El Paso and Saturday night is the priority. Another win would make first place that much harder for anyone to overtake. Through two matches against their opponents this season, United has already notched four goals, two apiece for both Chris Wehan and Devon Sandoval. With Sandoval hopefully returning from an injury this weekend, chances are good that we’ll see him back in the team sheet if not the starting XI.

In his absence, Troy Lesesne has put out an unorthodox lineup that performed well above the expectations of those of us who cover the club and that of supporters. There’s just something about Lesesne’s footballing mind that seems to get the best out of this club on a regular basis. Even when he puts out a traditional-looking team sheet, there’s no guarantee that the system on the pitch will even match that. It’s something that keeps United’s opponents, and even those around the club, guessing.

Projected XI against El Paso

No matter the system that he employs, the players have bought in. Wehan leads the club in goals and is in the top five in the league. Amando Moreno has been unlocked and Romeo Parkes is one solid match away from becoming one of the most dangerous strikers in the league.

Between the forwards and defenders, it’s hard to really say which side of the pitch has seen the biggest improvement. I don’t think anyone expected the club to be running away with the group by this point, or to be one of the better defensive sides in the USL. If their level of play keeps up, we could see United finish with at least five clean sheets, one better than all of last season.

United’s keys to the match:

  • Maintain defensive form
  • Force Locomotive into errors
  • Play with pace

Our Predictions:

  • Jacob: 3 – 0 United
  • Seth: 2 – 0 United

Players to Watch

Dylan Mares – The Locomotive midfielder is due for a big match. He’s played well in most of his appearances so far and is going to be a name to watch over the next couple of seasons.

Juan Pablo Guzman – Though he’s not typically a scoring threat, JPG is a creator and solid defensive midfielder. His decision making this season has been exceptional and has played United into positions to be dangerous in every match.

Saturday night’s match will be available to watch or listen to across several different outlets. The match will broadcast live via stream on ESPN+ domestically and on YouTube for international viewers. The match will also be broadcast locally on Estrella TV. Radio coverage will be available on ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM, via The TEAM app, and The TEAM website. Spanish language commentary will be available on La Zeta 106.3 FM.