United’s league plans 16-game regular season, then playoffs

New Mexico United’s Devon Sandoval fires a shot on goal against Orange County at Isotopes Park on Sunday. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)
New Mexico United now knows how many games it will have for the reworked 2020 season, just not where those games will take place or whom they will play just yet.

USL Championship, the league United and 34 other teams play in that saw its 2020 season interrupted in mid-March along with the rest of the sports world due to COVID-19, announced on Wednesday it will get a reboot with a 16-game schedule starting July 11.

The league’s reworked format will include eight regional groups aimed at cutting down travel (four of those groups will be unveiled Thursday and four more on Friday) with two teams from each group advancing to a 16-team, single- elimination tournament at the conclusion of a 13-week regular season set to conclude the first weekend of October.

Five groups will include four teams and three will be five teams deep. Teams will play 12 matches within its group and four outside.

United’s 1-0 road loss to Austin Bold FC on March 7 will count in the standings, meaning United restarts its season with an 0-1 record and 15 matches remaining. Just three of the league’s 35 teams hadn’t played a match yet when the season was halted, and they will play all 16 games in the restart. Two teams had already played two matches and will have 14 games left.

As for where United will play — home or road matches — that remains unclear.

While the USL intends for all teams to have  a balanced eight home match/eight road match schedule, the league’s Board of Governors has approved the flexibility to change home match locations “if necessary.” An example given was if a home team can’t get into an arena for COVID-19 related restrictions being imposed by the state.

United certainly falls under that umbrella.

As of Wednesday, the state of New Mexico has not green-lighted sporting events with contact or with the number of people needed to host a USL match, regardless of fans being in attendance. It is unclear when that phase of the state’s reopening plan will take effect or if Isotopes Park will even be available for United. The Triple-A baseball team that is the stadium’s primary tenant and did much of United’s game day operations, but with no Pacific Coast League season planned has put the majority of staff on furlough.

Asked on Wednesday if United, for sure, would be playing in Isotopes Park this season, a team official reiterated that while all state guidelines would be followed, “a venue has not been selected yet.”

Meanwhile, 260 miles south, El Paso Locomotive ownership on Wednesday announced it intends to play its home USL Championship matches with fans at about a 20-25% capacity in Southwest University Park.

Last week, United did announce ways for ticket holders to refund their tickets or roll them over to the 2021 season in anticipation of the likelihood of playing most, if not all, home matches without fans being allowed in attendance.

The league also released on Wednesday its “Health and Wellness Protocols” for its return to play, including a 51-page report available on the league’s website (uslchampionship.com). The measures include weekly testing for players and “staff members who work with players” and extensive coverage of what teams and players will have to do if/when positive tests or presumed positive tests are returned.

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