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United needs a win to control playoff fate

New Mexico United’s Kevaughn Frater, far left, leaps to block a header by Phoenix’s Adam Jahn, second from left, during a recent match. ROBERTO E. ROSALES

In the most expansive season to date in the nine-year existence of the USL Championship, the 2019 campaign has featured a balanced 34-match schedule for the first time in the league’s nascent history.

For New Mexico United, whether its inaugural campaign is ultimately judged a success or failure on the pitch will crystallize in the final two matches of a demanding season.

The first of those two, a home game against the woeful Tacoma Defiance (7-19-6) at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at Isotopes Park, will prove decisive in whether United (10-10-12) go into its final match still in control of its playoff fate or reliant on others to keep it adrift. Anything less than a victory will galvanize scoreboard watching in earnest and make New Mexico’s final game the decider.

Back in Albuquerque after a crushing stoppage time defeat at Tulsa Roughnecks FC last Saturday, New Mexico’s playoff destiny remains in its hands – but only just. United head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne said the bravery his men bring to the pitch during the last two games will determine how successfully the club closes out its inaugural season.

“The mentality at this stage of the season is vital,” Lesesne told the Journal recently. “Against Tulsa (last Saturday), I feel like we were a little more reserved – we weren’t ourselves in the first 10-15 minutes in terms of trying to take the initiative. We can’t get away from that.”

New Mexico should take some measure of reassurance playing in a stadium where it has suffered only three defeats in 15 games, but Lesesne noted that a victory would be crucial for momentum and confidence going into Saturday’s season finale against Las Vegas Lights FC.

“The magnitude of (Saturday’s match) doesn’t mean as much if we don’t take care of the game in front of us,” he said. “We have to be all hands on deck to try to get three points Wednesday so we can have one foot in the playoffs at that point.”

United carry the burden of a month-long winless slide into the last home stretch of the season, with its last victory coming at the expense of rivals Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Sept. 14. In the ensuing weeks, two losses and draws apiece have seen the club’s hold on a playoff slot grow tenuous as the Western Conference table became more stratified between the have and have-nots.

As of Tuesday evening, six teams in the West had clinched a playoff spot while five are mathematically eliminated, leaving seven clubs vying for the four remaining slots.

Lesesne reiterated what has become a season-long mantra when emphasizing the necessity of focus on the pitch for his men.

“Whenever we’ve matched the level of intensity that we’re capable of – that we’ve seen so many times through the year – with concentration and execution, that’s when we’re playing our best football,” Lesesne said. “It has to be there on Wednesday night. There’s no other way.”

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