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Emptying the Notebook: New Mexico United faces rival El Paso

New Mexico United midfielder Saalih Muhammad (16) dribbles downfield while being defended by Colorado Switchbacks midfielder Will Vint during Saturday’s (July 11, 2020) match between New Mexico United and the Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Weidner Field in Colorado Springs. (Courtesy Isaiah J. Downing/Switchbacks FC)


Here are all the notes, quotes, tweets and videos I was able to empty out of the old notebook ahead of Wednesday’s USL Championship match between New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive:

Already a rivalry?

In case New Mexico United and the El Paso Locomotive didn’t already have a good feel for one another, they’re about to get real familiar.

The two second-year USL Championship clubs have quickly let geography, their passionate trash-talking supporters groups and quality play all mix together to create a good old fashioned budding desert rivalry.

The two sides — members of the four-team Group C in the revamped USLC schedule — square off Wednesday night in El Paso in the first of four matches this season and two in the next nine days with group positioning already vital in a shortened season.

“It’s amazing being in our second season that we’ve formed these quote-unquote rivalries in such a short amount of time with Phoenix and El Paso,” said United coach Troy Lesesne. “I think a lot of it has to do with it being close in proximity. But I think it also has to do with the fact that El Paso was in the Western Conference Finals last year. So they’re a top top team. They ran away with the league last year. And ourselves, we made our mark in a number of ways. We were top of the table for a period of time early in the season, then we had the Open Cup run.

“So the three of us are very competitive, and we’re all trying to be the best in the southwest. So I think that’s a big reason why. And that’s a good thing. That’s a good thing for the league, and it’s certainly a good thing for our conference.”

With the shortened season and group play in effect, what’s good for the conference and the USL with these two teams playing each other so often is also risky for either team if they aren’t on top of their game early.

United (1-1-0) is coming off a 2-1 win on Saturday at Colorado Springs and with three points sits tied with the Switchbacks for second in Group C (defending USLC champion Real Monarchs SLC are already 0-2-0 on the season). And atop the Group C table is Locomotive (1-0-1) with four points.

Without fans on Wednesday — even on the road, United fans travelled well to El Paso last season — the energy will have to be self generated at El Paso’s Southwest University Park. Midfielder Saalih Muhaamad said in a lot of ways, it is the support United has that has at times made opposing teams focus so much on beating them.

“You know, I think a lot of people want to come at us because of our fan base, among other things,” said Muhammad, the midfielder who scored his first professional goal in Saturday’s win at Colorado Springs. “I think that we naturally have a target on our back. A lot of teams are gonna try to push our button.”

Up next

Wednesday: NM United at El Paso Locomotive FC, 7 p.m., ESPN-plus (online stream), 101.7 FM

Of note, the game match was changed in the past few days to 7 p.m. after original schedules had posted the match time as 8 p.m.

In the paper

In Wednesday’s print edition of the Journal, we visiting the state’s travel quarantine mandate and how it may apply to United and what would seem to be their inability to practice between matches as well as the visible violations of the USL’s return to play protocols from Saturday’s match at Colorado Springs and what that means for a United team that was using the stringent league demands as a bit of an example of how safe they must be by following those rules.

No home, for now

While there is still plenty going on that could affect the season, United told the Journal on Tuesday that the July 29 home match against Salt Lake City is off, for now.

“We have only postponed our July 29th match against SLC and will be asking the league and SLC to reschedule it for the near the end of the season,” United spokeswoman Jessica Campbell wrote in an email to the Journal. “We remain hopeful that as New Mexicans continue wearing masks, practicing social distancing, etc. — that we will have the opportunity to play home matches without fans. The league has already mentioned that teams will be allowed to play an ‘unbalanced’ schedule, if necessary.”

United and the University of New Mexico had announced an agreement to play matches at the Lobo soccer complex, but as of Tuesday there was still no final contract signed to do so.

Suspended

United second-year defender Manny Padilla has been suspended indefinitely by the team while it looks into sexual assault allegations that apparently stem from his time in college at the University of San Francisco, according to a team statement issued on social media on Tuesday afternoon.

The team’s statement:

“New Mexico United has been made aware of sexual assault allegations made against Manny Padilla during his time at the University of San Francisco.

“Under no circumstance does our team condone or tolerate sexual violence or assault. Our team takes allegations of this kind very seriously and we are conducting an internal investigation into the matter, including contacting the University of San Francisco for additional information.

“Manny has been cooperative with this investigation and has been suspended from team activities during our investigation.”

Padilla, the 24-year-old from Compton, Calif., who played at USF from 2014-17, has started 25 games for United, including both this season.

UPDATE: Late Tuesday, this was posted on Twitter by a University of San Francisco’s student newspaper reporter. It is a statement from USF acknowledging not only that Padilla was investigated for a sexual assault allegation, but “was found to be responsible” and was disciplined by the school.

I don’t know any more details on the matter than the two tweets posted above. As more information is gathered, I will share it.

So, about that goal

Saalih Muhammad’s goal in the 25th minute on Saturday was still all the buzz for the team during a video conference on Tuesday.

It was leading the USL’s social media goal of the week voting with 49 percent of the 1,123 votes cast on the league’s website as of late Tuesday, leading four other contenders, including one scored against United (Switchbacks’ Aidan Daniels was third with 15 percent). The voting runs through Thursday.

Muhammad tried taking the humble approach about it all with reporters on Tuesday when asked both about if he’ll keep striking for 30-40 yards out now that he scored his first goal and also about the response to the goal he’s received.

“That’ll probably be once every couple years, I’m feeling,” Muhammad said. “I, hopefully can get more goals to help the team out throughout the course of the rest of the season. …

“I’m not on social media, so I really only got a lot of text messages from people back home, people in the soccer community showing respect for the goal.”

His coach wasn’t about to let him off the hook without a little more ribbing when the team’s media relations director announced to reporters Muhammad would have to leave the presser for other obligations.

“This is what happens when you have a diva that scores a goal like this,” Lesesne said. “He doesn’t want to do the press conference, or he leaves early.”

He said it

“There’s kind of this unspoken thing in sports that winning solves all your problems. I think it was is a bit of an easier bus ride home with three points in hand.” — United midfielder Chris Wehan of Saturday’s win.

On the defense

While three defenders with a combined 80 starts for United in 2019 din’t make the trip to Colorado Springs (and aren’t likely going to play in El Paso, either), Lesesne can’t stop smiling when thinking about the play he’s been getting in two matches this season from his backline.

“We were also extremely sound defensively,” Lesesne said. “Again, Austin, if you go back to that match (on March 7), one shot on goal and it’s a penalty. This match. There’s one shot on goal technically, because Cody (Mizell) had a little bit of a save on one that went off the post and they don’t count that is a shot on target and a fair amount of action in and around the box, but that’s where you have to get credit to Kalen (Ryden), Austin Yearwood, Sam Hamilton, Cody, David Najem, Manny Padilla — our back line was so sound.

“Last season, that that ends in a draw or loss. I can say that confidently and that’s us trying to reflect on where we needed to improve.”

Let’s see Group C

Entering Wednesday’s matches:
• 4 points — 1-0-1 — GD: +1 — El Paso
• 3 points — 1-1-0 — GD: 0 — New Mexico
• 3 points — 1-1-0 — GD: 0 — Colorado Springs
• 0 points — 0-2-0 — GD: -2 — Real Monarchs SLC

Fit, or fatigued?

The rust showed on Saturday for United. But it also showed for the Switchbacks.

That’s the nature of the game right now for USLC teams trying to get back in shape after a four-month break.

“I think if you ask everybody on the field — Colorado (Springs) and our team as well, I mean it’s obvious that guys aren’t 90 minutes fit. We’re not match fit right now. We haven’t played 90 minutes since March 7. That’s going to come. The match fitness will come. Definitely some tired legs and some tired lungs out there. But we knew that was going to happen. We expected that.”

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