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United aims to bounce back against MLS’ Rapids

New Mexico United’s Kevaughn Frater, right, here in an earlier game against Tulsa, will test his mettle with his teammates Wednesday night in Commerce, Colo. against the MLS’ Colorado Rapids. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

The New Mexico United are in unfamiliar territory in more ways than one, yet they are thrilled to be in this situation.

Coming off their first shutout loss and first home setback in its history, the United Soccer League expansion team will take on a Major League Soccer side for the first time when it plays the Colorado Rapids  Wednesday night at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup. The winner advances to next week’s Round of 16.

Troy Lesesne, United head coach and technical director, wants his team to rebound from a horrific 3-0 loss Saturday to Sacramento FC. United will attempt to do so against a Rapids team that is 4-9-3 overall in MLS play, but 4-0-1 in its last five matches.

Lesesne is hoping for the same type of bounce-back from the last time the United was shut out. NM United played to a scoreless draw with Rio Grande Valley on April 6. Then on April 13, the United erupted for a 5-1 win over visiting Salt Lake.

“Everyone’s excited for this game,” Lesesne said. “The goal is to make it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup to play an MLS opponent. That’s where there is a proving ground. We want to show what our club is about in year one, as we try to establish ourselves.”

Through 15 matches, United (6-2-7) has established itself as one of the best teams in the USL and certainly one of the most exciting, attracting throngs of fans for home matches at Isotopes Park. New Mexico leads the USL in average home attendance, 12,836, according to Soccer Stadium Digest.

Despite Saturday’s loss, United remains atop the Western Conference standings, and despite being shut out against Sacramento is tied for the most goals in the USL at 31 with Phoenix.

Lesesne says United, which settled for a 1-1 draw last Wednesday at home vs. OKC Energy, isn’t in a scoring drought.

“It was one game,” he said. “We lead the league in goals.”

The Rapids, meanwhile, have turned around their season that began with an 0-9-2 start, but still are 11th in the MLS Western Conference standings. They have benefited from key player acquisitions and Conor Casey taking over as interim coach.

Now, they don’t want a repeat of last year, when they fell in the fourth round of the U.S. Open Cup to Nashville.

NM United midfielder Chris Wehan knows the Rapids will be plenty motivated tonight. But he believes that’s a good thing.

“This is a game that is very easy to get up for,” said Wehan, a former University of New Mexico player. “It’s an MLS side. Everyone who has played in the USL strives to make it to the MLS. How awesome is it that this is not just any game? But it’s a game that means something.”

Wehan said he hopes the United’s strong fan base will show its support on the road. He said he always knew Albuquerque had good sports fans from his time as a Lobo, but he’s surprised the United has drawn so much support.

“It’s been phenomenal,” Wehan said. “It has blown my mind, actually. But it comes with a big responsibility. We owe it to them to work hard on the field and to contribute to the community off the field, too. It’s been incredible. It’s been a real joy.”

A fan bus of at least 45 people is heading to tonight’s game, said R.J. Montaño, a founder of the Curse, an NM United supporters group. Five spots were open as of Monday, Montaño said.

He said that, through fundraising, the price per person for the bus ride was offered at $50.

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