New Mexico United is scheduled to face off against Minnesota United FC in their Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match tonight, and its run has the hype machine in frenetic overdrive.
The first-year outfit has claimed four straight road wins in the tournament – two against Major League Soccer sides – in pursuit of its first silverware. United’s matches have been nothing if not dramatic: It has won twice on penalty kicks and once in extra time, most recently dispatching MLS side FC Dallas 2-1 on June 19. The ultimate prize, a berth in the 2020 CONCACAF Champions League, awaits the eventual victor.
And yet, if you ask the players, it’s just another game. No pressure.
“There are some things said in the public and media that build the game up, and that’s the way it has to be,” midfielder Daniel Bruce told the Journal. “But at the end of the day, you walk on that field and (it’s) 11 players against 11 players.”
The self-assured tenacity with which Bruce spoke is both a reflection of N.M. United’s Cup success and the reason it is where it is to begin with.
But its stellar tournament showing has come at a cost. After a fast start to its campaign in the USL Western Conference, NMU has suffered a drop in form, sliding from first to seventh place following a 1-0 loss to Real Monarchs on Saturday. A glut of road games has stretched energy thin, and head coach Troy Lesesne has relied heavily on squad rotation to keep legs fresh.
Lesesne acknowledged that the challenge posed by Minnesota will be its stiffest to date, particularly in regard to Colombian forward Darwin Quintero.
“Their attacking movements are really good; they try to pull you in and out and free up space for their front four to operate in,” Lesesne said, noting that Minnesota’s pace and shot power will be more difficult to contend with than the more youthful Dallas squad.
Exacerbating the situation will be the absence of talisman forward Kevaughn Frater, who will sit out due to yellow card accumulation.
“Some guys will just have to step up” in Frater’s place, Lesesne said, adding that it may play to their advantage to trot out a lineup with the potential to confound Minnesota’s scouting.
NMU’s opponent, meanwhile, appears to have laid to rest some of its demons from the past.
Entering MLS as an expansion team in 2017, Minnesota finished its first two seasons of league play well out of the playoffs. Several key roster additions and the completion of soccer-specific stadium Allianz Field, however, have borne witness to an organization reborn. The team sits in fourth place in the MLS Western Conference and eliminated Sporting Kansas City and Houston Dynamo, the two previous Open Cup champions, en route to its date with New Mexico.
The sole player on the NMU roster with Open Cup final experience, Albuquerque native and MLS veteran Devon Sandoval, knows the long odds facing his club.
“We definitely are underdogs if you just look; (just) compare their salary to ours,” Sandoval said. (For reference, Minnesota’s Quintero is making $1.75 million in 2019 – USL salaries typically aren’t disclosed.). “But that’s fine. Once we’re out on the field, we’re all equals, and it’s about who wants it more and who’s ready for the moment.”
A non-MLS team advancing to the semifinals has occurred twice over the past decade. The last lower-division club in the modern era (1995-present) to claim the title outright was the Rochester Rhinos in 1999.
United is hoping to capture some of that magic for its own as it writes its newest chapter. The players are just enjoying the ride.
“The guys are excited,” NMU goaltender Cody Mizell said. “We’re going to implement our style of New Mexico United football, and they’ll have to adjust to us. I don’t think we’re going to change to adapt to them.”
WATCH PARTY: The city of Albuquerque will host a downtown watch party on Civic Plaza for tonight’s match. Fans are invited to begin arriving at 5 p.m. for the 6 o’clock contest.
The event is free and will provide a family-friendly atmosphere. Concession stands will have food, beer and wine available for purchase. Food trucks will be on site as well. Some seating will be provided but fans are encouraged to bring their own seating.