It will have been 135 days since New Mexico United last took the pitch for a competitive match when the year two project begins in earnest in Texas on Saturday.
If the club’s stated aspirations for its second USL Championship season come to fruition, the four and a half months will be worth the wait.
“True hope is swift, and flies with swallow’s wings,” said Richmond in the Bard of Avon’s Machiavellian play “Richard III.” “Kings it makes gods, and meaner creatures kings.”
United begins its 2020 campaign with a road match at Austin Bold FC, and though true hope will likely play a role in United’s more experienced squad, depth and continuity will mark the difference between a club tinged with the uncertainty of 2019’s meaner creatures and a team with the self-assuredness of league royalty.
To be certain, much can and will happen to perhaps derail those best-laid plans between now and October, but such is the optimism galvanized by preseason — all is seen through the tinted glasses of buoyant confidence.
“I look back at where we were this time last year going into (the season opener), and it’s just a world of difference,” head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne said. “Our culture is firmly set with the players that we’ve been able to retain — they’re completely bought into that, and so then it’s about getting the players that we signed up to speed to all those ideas as well.”
United rolled through its competition during preseason play — four February fixtures saw El Paso Locomotive FC steamrolled 4-1, one-goal victories over OKC Energy FC and Phoenix Rising FC and a 2-0 loss to FC Tucson.
Newcomer Sammy Sergi impressed with three preseason tallies. Fresh out of a college career at Xavier, where the Virginia native scored 29 goals in 67 appearances, this is the forward’s first professional contract. Additionally, Chris Wehan, Romeo Parkes and Amando Moreno each contributed a score.
How will United fare in the second act of owner Peter Trevisani’s live action saga? According to Lesesne, the answer hinges largely on the players’ familiarity with each other, his scheme and the oft-elusive depth that derails so many clubs’ ambitions.
Many returning players from 2019 hardly need an introduction.
Devon Sandoval returns after perhaps a career-defining season in which he shattered his personal record with 16 goals in all competitions. At age 28, Sandoval may not yet have reached his ceiling, and seeing over 2,500 minutes on the pitch in 2019 greatly increased his comfort level with Lesesne’s scheme and should prove a substantial boost to his confidence. Playmakers Chris Wehan and Daniel Bruce could also very well be primed to contribute heavily on offense after a full year under Lesesne, combining for 13 goals and nine assists in 2019.
Offensively, New Mexico will need all the help it can get to achieve replacement level output from several departed goal-scoring linchpins. Santi Moar and Kevaughn Frater, who collectively contributed 29 goals and 15 assists in United’s inaugural season, will be missed for their creativity in the final third after departing for Phoenix Rising FC and the Indian Super League’s Bengaluru FC, respectively.
Although much firepower has been retained and added, an improved defense will be critical for United to achieve its stated goal of hosting a playoff game at Isotopes Park.
Dropping points after capturing a lead early and then relinquishing it was an unfortunate hallmark of 2019 — something Lesesne acknowledged was largely responsible for the team’s second-half struggles.
“Just like our ethos, it’s hammered into (our players) about hard work, humility and diligence. We’re taking the same approach towards our defensive principles … in terms of what we’ve been really thoroughly teaching,” Lesesne said. “If we’re not explicit about ‘What does New Mexico United look like when we defend in each area of the field’ then we’re not setting the team up for success. I think we had a little bit of that in year one, but it started to drift as the season went on. As a result, I think it was seven or eight matches where we had the lead and either for the most part drew or a couple matches we ended up losing.
“That’s a lot of points to leave on the table, and that’s our goal for year two is to shore that up.”
Andrew Tinari, 24, an offseason acquisition from the Tampa Bay Rowdies, figures to be another crucial piece in New Mexico’s defensive scheme as a box-to-box midfielder — a true 8 that United often lacked through the center last year. The diminutive Columbia alum was cognizant of Lesesne’s fluid transition system but said the role he’s been asked to play in training was in more of a defense-minded slot.
“I would love to have this club win a championship, of course, but (a) personal goal is really just continue to learn from the game, learn from Troy, and I think that’s someone that can do that for me,” Tinari said. “He brings in guys who he knows will not only be a player but an exceptional man. It’s easy to teach players like that and keep them motivated.”
The core of last year’s defense remains largely intact, with only wingbacks Ethen Sampson and Tommy Madden departing. Kalen Ryden comes in from USL Championship Final-winning Real Monarchs SLC, and Lesesne noted his presence as a “massive” signing alongside fellow new defender David Najem.
For those with more data-driven minds, statistical modeling website FiveThirtyEight gives more muted expectations for United in 2020. The model still provides some measure of comparison beyond the eye test and puts New Mexico firmly ensconced near the middle of the Western Conference. FiveThirtyEight has New Mexico starting the season as the 11th-strongest club in the 18-team Western Conference with a 55% chance of making the postseason.
The logistical and organizational aspects of the USL Championship’s 10th season remain largely the same. The league, which has undergone rapid changes in recent years as interest and investment in soccer has proliferated nationally, is entering a year of relative stability.
While 2019 saw seven expansion teams begin play with four clubs exiting the league, only one expansion club in San Diego Loyal SC will enter Championship action, replacing Fresno FC in the Western Conference after the Foxes folded.
In the abstract, United’s 2020 season hinges on one question: Can it replicate and sustain the on-field success it saw in spurts in 2019?
True hope may indeed be swift, but swallow’s wings could flee with it at short notice. Nevertheless, United’s conviction is that improvement is the only viable option.
“When you look at (last year) as we got into July and August, everybody references (that) we kind of hit a little bit of a wall,” Lesesne said. “I’m hoping we’re able to sustain that level that we were able to hit, the highs we were able to hit in May and June in particular, throughout the course of a 10-month season. That’s the goal with this roster.”