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United owner: Team can help ‘change narrative’ of pandemic this season

New Mexico United, shown before an intrasquad game in February when there was no pandemic and social distancing, has big plans for the resumption of the 2020 USL Championship season. (Roberto E. Rosales/Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Yes. Just playing a season at all amid an unprecedented global pandemic, at least on some levels, could be considered a victory in itself for the USL Championship and its 35 teams, including New Mexico United.

But the unique challenges of the 2020 season – one that will officially reboot July 11 with a recently announced revamped 16-game format of group play and a single-elimination playoff bracket to follow – have to bring with it some tempered expectations, right?

Not so much for United majority owner Peter Trevisani, who has never been shy about talking up his vision of the state’s professional soccer team being about more than just sports.

“I do feel very good about the amount of energy we put into it and our commitment to playing to really, to really help that third bucket of this pandemic,” Trevisani said during a virtual media conference on Thursday. “You know, you have the disease, you have the economic impact and then you have all the other things – the substance abuse, the suicides, domestic abuse, so many things that are skyrocketing because people are in a state of distress. So if we can help there, then we’re creating a service.

“I’d also say that when New Mexicans look back on 2020, and someone asked them, ‘What’s the one word that pops into your mind?’ I don’t want it to be ‘pandemic’. I want it to be ‘champions’. And we have the ability to change that narrative this year.”

Most of Thursday’s virtual news conference – with both Trevisani and coach Troy Lesesne sitting in front of virtual backdrops sporting sponsor logos just like the backdrops used for in-person pressers – covered matters like limited player training due to pandemic restrictions, the shortened season ahead, the COVID-19 restrictions the team faces, and the possibilities of the team having to play somewhere other than Isotopes Park and, maybe even outside of the state.

Lesesne noted that while his job performance is judged a little more on match results than that of his boss, he agrees that there is more at stake with the season ahead. His team lost its opener 1-0 at Austin and has 15 games to be scheduled.

“We have games to play. If there’s a schedule in front of us, and there’s a competitive season, then we want to try to be the best,” said Lesesne. “We feel a tremendous responsibility as a club always, through our results, to make sure that we provide hope and instill hope in the community.”

GROUP PLAY: The USL on Thursday unveiled the first four of eight groups for the 2020 season. The top two finishers from the eight groups make the new single-elimination playoff format.

United is in Group C, a regional collection that includes the El Paso Locomotive, Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC and Salt Lake’s Real Monarchs SLC. Two of the three would be drivable matches for United and SLC would likely be a flight.

BUT WHERE WILL THEY PLAY? State health restrictions do not yet allow outdoor group activities with groups larger than five or with physical contact, leading Trevisani to acknowledge the team will have to be flexible about potentially having to leave the state for training or even to play some “home” matches until restrictions relax.

“We’re still waiting to be cleared by the governor to kind of come back and resume play,” said Trevisani, who ironically is on Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s Economic Recovery Council helping guide the reopening process for the state.

“So we just have to be patient and that means we’re probably going to start the season off on the road. And we’ll just adapt to whatever the rules are knowing they could change the day before a game.”

When matches are played in New Mexico, it’s not a given they’ll be at the usual place, Isotopes Park. United is talking with UNM about use of the soccer complex and maybe even the football field if a scenario is presented that allows a percentage of fans in a venue, meaning a venue with a normal capacity of 39,224 would allow more fans than city-owned Isotopes Park.

Mayor Tim Keller at his Thursday media conference also indicated a new venue other than Isotopes Park is a real possibility for this season.

“There are other venues that United can play in that might be bigger,” Keller said, “so if they can find a bigger venue with limited capacity, that means overall more fans. All of these concepts are on the table.”

Keller was being speculative about a date down the road that fans might be able to return to matches. United, meanwhile, has anticipated a home schedule with no fans allowed and has offered season-ticket buyers an option of a refund or rollover into 2021.

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