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Under a cloud of uncertainty, United returns

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)

It’s been a while.

March 7, to be exact, was the last time New Mexico United took the pitch and March 14 was the last time a team sporting event (state high school basketball championships) took place in New Mexico, and even that one was without fans in attendance.

But Saturday night in Colorado Springs, New Mexico United – the state’s second-year USL Championship professional soccer club – returns to action in a 2020 season reboot against the Switchbacks to start an abbreviated 15-game push toward a postseason.

That means the team, according to coach Troy Lesesne, has to be as focused as ever.

“When you look at it, it’s going to be a sprint,” Lesesne said. “You don’t have 34 games to prepare for. There’s 15 games now if it’s a 16- game season and we’ve already played one (United’s March 7 loss at Austin), there’s 15 games in front of us in a condensed window of time. So before five matches in and you don’t have a great record, it could go the other way quickly.”

While the USL is restarting with a format of eight small, geographically arranged groups instead of two large conferences, there remains uncertainty off the pitch for United.

New Mexico’s public health order during the pandemic appears certain now to prevent the ability to play home matches in the state this season, after the team appeared headed toward a deal to play matches at UNM. There is still no signed contract for that to happen despite it being announced last week.

Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s executive order putting in a 14-day mandatory quarantine for anyone entering the state means opposing USL teams can’t play in New Mexico anyway. For United, it means relocation out of state for training and “home” games is expected, though the team has not responded specifically to requests for comment on that.

“United is currently in a quarantine bubble,” team majority owner Peter Trevisani said when asked if the team will relocate, or even possibly stay on the road with its next two matches July 15 and 24 in El Paso. “We are following league protocols and state protocols. We expect to have more details soon.”

Thursday, Lujan Grisham’s Office said United matches in the state would be “unlikely” this season and also told the Journal earlier this week that United will be required to quarantine like everyone else – a process that would prohibit practicing between matches.

As for possibly relocating or having to play matches in another state?

“I suppose we’ll all cross that bridge when we come to it,” said Nora Meyers Sackett, the governor’s Press Secretary. “That’s been part of the state’s ongoing conversations with United.”

For now, for Saturday, there’s a game to be played and at a time everyone could use the welcome distraction of sports.

“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,” Lesesne said. “… As a club, we want to be an agent of positive change. We say that all the time. So both on the field and off the field, and I think we can still serve that purpose as a club. And certainly one of those ways is through positive results on the field.”

THE GAME: Saturday, NM United at Colo. Springs Switchbacks FC, 6 p.m., ESPN+ (online stream), 101.7 FM

AIR IT OUT: United plays again Saturday. And in case you hadn’t heard that, 101.7 FM ESPN Radio will try to remind you of that on Saturday.

The local radio station, which is contracted to broadcast all United matches and will do so for now remotely with Adam Diehl and Andy Hageman calling the game off the ESPN-plus video stream, has scheduled for Saturday seven hours – SEVEN HOURS – of United content.

• 10 a.m. – 11 a.m. – United Weekly
• 4 p.m. – 6 p.m. – pregame show
• 6 p.m. – 8:30 p.m. – game broadcast
• 8:30 p.m. – 10 p.m. – Call-in show

GOT SKILLS? Since the pandemic shut down competition, and even before teams, including United, were allowed just recently to again resume practicing, players had a lot of time alone.

Many players were forced to get back to basic individual workouts and some feel the technical skill work might actually have received more attention the past several months than it would have normally when coaches and teams are so consumed with matches and team-setting practices.

“We’ve heard that comment from so many different players about the training that we’ve been doing, because it’s been so technically driven and individually focused, that they feel they feel that much sharper, and they feel like they’ve been able to deep dive in into themselves as individuals versus what we’re usually preparing for,” Lesesne said in an interview last month.

“… The way we play that’s important. We try to play we try to play with the ball, we’re not a team that likes to sit back and absorb pressure and hit you on the counter.”

ON THE CALL: March 14 was the last time Adam Diehl called a sporting event.

At least officially.

Since doing the play-by-play call in an fan-less Pit of the Class 6A boys basketball state championship game (Las Cruces High beat Capital), Diehl has spent the past several months calling English Premier League games to himself at home and told the Journal this current drought between officially calling games is the longest since his first broadcast in college in 2008.

“Obviously,” he told the Journal, “I’m super excited” to call Saturday’s game.

DON’T GO THERE: While United fans were regular travelers for road matches last season, especially ones just across state lines in Colorado, El Paso or west to Phoenix, the club this year is advising against it.

“Fans should not travel to matches, and no tickets are available to the general public for our upcoming matches in Colorado Springs and in El Paso,” a United spokeswoman wrote in a team statement on Thursday evening. “No New Mexicans will have access to these matches.”

The Switchbacks are allowing season ticket holders into Saturday’s match and, after initially saying it would allow fans in, El Paso has now said next Wednesday’s match will be with no fans in attendance, but has not ruled yet on the July 24 United match, also in El Paso.

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