October’s arrival in New Mexico brought with it the final four matches of New Mexico United’s maiden season, and the results could prove decisive in whether United is able to host a playoff match at home – or indeed, if the freshman USL Championship outfit makes the postseason cut at all.
Time will soon tell if United comes to rue dropping points in the first match of the four: New Mexico (10-9-12) played to a 1-1 draw against Rio Grande Valley FC in front of an announced crowd of 11,196 at Isotopes Park on Saturday night.
United head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne and his men came into the evening in 11th place in the Western Conference at 41 points. Following its 2-2 draw with Phoenix Rising FC on Sept. 28, New Mexico’s second consecutive stalemate sees the club edge up to the 10th and final playoff position in the West.
Lesesne said dropping potential points against Rio Grande (9-15-8) stemmed from a lack of sharpness and discipline over the full 90 minutes.
“It’s similar to last week: We all understand we need three points, but they’re going to add up,” Lesesne said. “We need to take it as momentum going into (the next game Saturday at Tulsa) – now we turn our full attention to them.”
Rio Grande opened the scoring in the 40th minute after head referee Matthew Thompson awarded a penalty to the visitors. An audacious solo counter by RGV’s Kevin Rodríguez down the left flank ended with a foul conceded in the box by midfielder Toni Soler, and Rio Grande’s Carlos Small converted from the spot with poise.
New Mexico would recover, and recover with vigor.
Reverting to the relaxed, possession-oriented form it displayed earlier in the evening, United began pressing higher up the pitch. After a flurry of passes in its attacking third, defender Manny Padilla flicked a low cross from the corner of the box into an onrushing mass of bodies in the 6-yard box. Sam Hamilton latched onto the cross from close range and leveled with an oblique header in the 44th minute.
“I was fortunate to get my head on it,” Hamilton said. “After (the penalty), there was a shift in mentality in the group in the last five minutes (of the half).”
Hamilton added the tenor in the locker room after the match was upbeat while still sober on the realities the club faces down the final stretch.
“We’re still holding all the chips,” Hamilton said. “If we play our hand right, we’ll win the next game and then the next. We’re not defeated – we’re in a good spot.”
The second half saw a more disjointed affair – the match deteriorated into a back-and-forth of missed chances and poor decision-making. RGV would see a free kick just outside the 18-yard box kiss the crossbar before going harmlessly out of play in the match’s waning moments, and the 1-1 score would stand.
David Carl, the president of the Curse supporters’ group, said New Mexico’s playoff chances will ultimately rest on the backs of the defense. The club has conceded 54 goals this season, which puts it in the top third for most in the league.
“At the beginning of the year, it was all goals all the time: We’d try and outscore teams 5-3, but the back line has really started to gel,” Carl told the Journal. “Our biggest improvement by far has been defensively, and that’s what we need.
“When it comes to the playoffs, you’ve got to lock down defensively, or you’re not going to advance.”