United’s next stop in 2020: San Antonio

2020 is a year that no one will forget for a long time. Our worlds have been turned upside down and we’ve all had to make changes to how we live and act in our every day lives. From more people working remotely to travel restrictions and not being able to see our friends and family, it’s been a trying year for everyone. For those of us that are sports fans, it’s been compounded by a number of things; not being able to see our teams, seasons being abbreviated, and watching as schedules get constantly rearranged due to positive tests.

As hard as it’s been on us as fans, just imagine how it’s been for the players. While most of the clubs around the USL have been able to be home for periods of time, New Mexico United has essentially been away from home for the past four months. By this point, everyone is familiar with the travel restrictions that were put into place by the Governor and how they’ve adversely affected the club. The club has met every single one of those challenges so far and has done one of the most remarkable things that I, and many others, have ever seen in sports. They’ve played their entire season without a single home match.

Perhaps that, more than anything else, has prepared them to get a win in San Antonio tonight.

Don’t get me wrong, San Antonio is good at home. In fact, they’re undefeated on their home pitch. But, this New Mexico United club has learned how to get comfortable away from home; something they weren’t good at last season. United also did it in what was arguably one of the toughest groups heading into the season.

To be completely fair, Group C didn’t turn out to be the ‘group of death’ that many predicted it would be. The Monarchs were a shadow of their 2019 club and Colorado Springs, despite showing signs of improvement, just couldn’t find enough good form to make a run at the playoff spots. El Paso on the other hand, recovered from a poor early season to take the top spot in the group.

San Antonio meanwhile, had to play bottom dwellers Rio Grande Valley FC (Sorry, Ron!) and OKC Energy FC. Sure, Bold and FC Tulsa could be classified as decent this year, but neither of them were able to really challenge San Antonio for the top spot. That being said, both Bold and FC Tulsa were able to hand the Group D winners back to back losses to close out the regular season.

There wasn’t much to separate United and San Antonio in terms of stats, in fact they were pretty close to each other in a number of statistical categories. The two clubs combine for 53 goals and 13 clean sheets, while only allowing a combined 31 goals. That’s an average of one goal per match throughout the entire season. While we predicted this to be a high scoring match on the podcast this week, the more I think about it, the more I think we could be wrong.

Projected XI vs San Antonio

Both of these clubs are very solid defensively and don’t make many mistakes. Last season, United was known to drop points late in matches and aside from one match this season, that hasn’t happened this year. We keep talking about Kalen Ryden joining the club and the difference that he has made, but it’s more than just him. We’ve seen improved play from whoever is flanking him in the 3-4-3. Whether it’s Rashid Tetteh or Sam Hamilton or anyone else, the partnership with Ryden has paid off.

We’ve also seen Josh Suggs and Daniel Bruce transform themselves into wing backs, adding a layer of complexity to what Troy Lesesne wants his club to do.

At the other end of the pitch, Amando Moreno has firmly established himself as one of the best forwards in the USL. There were high expectations for the former Chicago Fire player as he was essentially brought in to replace Santi Moar. Had we been given an entire season, I have no doubt that he would have surpassed Moar’s totals from 2019. Six goals and four assists in 15 matches proved that he was the right pick by Lesesne.

Now, to the match on Saturday night. United has a chance to pick up their first playoff win in club history, while San Antonio is trying to make their first trip back since 2017 a successful one. The outcome of this match will depends on two things.

First, can United get Moreno and Chris Wehan involved early? When those two are involved, good things happen for United. They’ve both shown that they can get into space frequently and have their sights set squarely on the goal. Few defenders have been able to control them all season long and San Antonio faces a tough test. After a significant rebuild of their defense in the off-season, they haven’t always been on the same page Which is something that the speedy Moreno can take advantage of.

Luis Solignac is the top threat that United needs to track on Saturday night. Another former Chicago Fire member, Solignac has been stellar for San Antonio this season. With eight goals in 15 appearance this season, Solignac has regularly put himself into a position to score. It will be the job of United’s centre-mids to slow him down and try to prevent him from getting into open space in the final third.

Players to Watch

Amando Moreno – I talked about him earlier, but it’s worth repeating. Moreno is a catalyst for this United club and by involving him early and often, Matt Cardone will be in for a long night.

Cristian Parano – One of the holdovers from the 2019 campaign, Parano has quietly put together a solid season for San Antonio. He’s helped create a number of chances this season and his play could be crucial for a San Antonio win. If he’s able to open up space and play the ball into Solignac, then United will have to find a way from those plays becoming goals.

Our Predictions

Jacob: 4-0

Earl: 3-1

Seth 3-2

Saturday night’s match is scheduled for a 7 p.m. (Mountain) kickoff from Toyota Field in San Antonio. The match will be streamed live on ESPN+ for those within the U.S. and on YouTube for any international viewers. The match can also be heard locally on ESPN Radio 101.7 The TEAM, via The TEAM app, and website. Spanish language commentary is also available on La Zeta 106.3 FM.