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Struggling United to face Cardiff City in friendly at UNM

New Mexico United returns home Thursday night for its first contest in Albuquerque in over a month, hosting Cardiff City FC in an international club friendly at the UNM Soccer Complex.

Hailing from the constituent country of Wales in the United Kingdom, Cardiff City is on the second leg of a North American tour in preparation for its 2019-2020 campaign. Founded in 1899, the club has spent 17 years in the various incarnations of the top flight of English soccer, most recently an abbreviated Premier League stint in 2018-2019. The Welsh side has a storied history that includes a 1927 FA Cup, a 2012-2013 EFL Championship title and 22 Welsh Cups.

The juxtaposition of long-standing tradition versus nouveau sheen isn’t lost on United head coach Troy Lesesne.

“We want to continue to raise the bar for our club in every endeavor we enter into, and this international friendly versus Cardiff will be another historic night for our organization,” Lesesne said in a statement from the team. “I’m excited to see our players test themselves against a club with a rich history in England’s Premier League and Championship.”

The change in venue and a distinctly different caliber of opponent will test the resolve and preparedness of a team in flux.

Recently passing the halfway mark of its maiden campaign in the USL Championship, United’s recent league struggles have been acute. After collecting just two points from its six previous league matches – most recently falling 1-0 at upstart Fresno FC on Saturday – United now sits just above the playoff line in the Western Conference.

The defense in particular has been problematic during a congested summer schedule. New Mexico has scored just four goals since June 5 while conceding 13 and has a positive goal differential overall by plus-3.

Meanwhile, Cardiff handed USL Championship side San Antonio FC a 1-0 defeat on the first stop of their preseason tour on Saturday. Winger Josh Murphy scored the decisive goal on a second-half penalty as both squads substituted liberally.

Friendlies are generally low-pressure affairs – rule changes are determined ahead of the exhibition, usually allowing unlimited substitutions to allow playing time for less experienced or underutilized players. European clubs have been making efforts in recent years to make inroads into the U.S. market, albeit leaving many of their star players behind for various reasons.

For example, Leandro Bacuna and Junior Hoilett didn’t make the trip across the Atlantic, as they were granted time off after representing their countries at the 2019 Gold Cup. Gary Madine and Lee Tomlin were unable to travel with their club due to visa issues, and four Cardiff U-23 players have accompanied the first team as skipper Neil Warnock tests his team’s depth.

With the Albuquerque Isotopes baseball team, the primary tenant of Isotopes Park, in the middle of a seven-game home stand, United needed an alternate stadium to make the match happen tonight. NMU vice president of ticket sales and partnerships Ron Patel said that while other, larger venues were considered, playing on a traditional pitch surface was a priority.

“Both coaches preferred to play this match on natural grass instead of artificial turf,” Patel told the Journal. “The UNM Soccer (Complex) made the most sense because of that.”

The United front office is anticipating a sellout. While UNM’s website lists stadium capacity at 6,200, extra seating is being provided behind both goals, bringing the total capacity to around 6,500, according to Patel. The club’s ticketing website has indicated that 7,000 seats are available.

Warnock, the Cardiff coach, noted in an interview on the team’s website that winning during preseason isn’t the goal.

“You want to play games of course, but (results) are not vital in (preseason),” Warnock said. “It’s all about getting those minutes under your belt and working hard in training.”

“I think it’s a great opportunity to get the lads away for (10) days and play three tough matches at great facilities.”

United’s first home match, a preseason tuneup against the University of Denver back on Feb. 16, also took place at the UNM complex. Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval found the back of the net with eight minutes to play in that contest and gave the 1,215 on hand their first taste of what would come in the months ahead.

The match marks the first time a European outfit has traveled to the Land of Enchantment. Liga MX giants Tigres and Santos Laguna played a friendly at Isotopes Park in November. Cardiff’s North American tour will conclude with an exhibition in Canada against La Liga club Real Valladolid on Saturday.

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