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On the road again: United embracing season without home games

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New Mexico United coach Troy Lesesne greets player Sam Hamilton on Friday as they prepared to board a bus for Phoenix. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Troy Lesesne will turn this bus right around if his New Mexico United players don’t start showing the old man a little respect.

Somewhere on a New Mexico highway in the past month while his team was logging some of the roughly 5,400 miles it will travel for matches by the end of August, the 36-year-old United coach, the leader of the only USL Championship team in the country not yet allowed to play a match in its home state, looked around and saw a roster full of players sleeping, putting headphones on, or glued to their own devices.

How could they not be enjoying his wonderful college DVD collection on the small video screens hanging from the roof of their chartered bus?

“It’s about educating these guys,” Lesesne joked earlier this week ahead of Saturday night’s match at Phoenix Rising FC. “They need to watch movies like Good Will Hunting, you know? They’re young, and it’s important that we bring them up to speed for these classic movies. So I have to provide that.”

He later added, “these guys don’t even have DVDs anymore. It’s all downloaded on their devices.”

Such are the not-so-important struggles of a United team sitting pretty with an unbeaten mark since the USL Championship’s July 11 season restart — one that now features a regionalized, group-based format geared at trying to make most matches a manageable bus ride away.

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Angelica Lopez, 9, center, waves her flag on Friday afternoon as New Mexico United’s team bus pulls out to head to Phoenix for Saturday’s game. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

If they didn’t know each other well before this season, the seemingly countless hours on bus rides and quarantining together in their apartments between practices and matches will do the trick.

“I’m not going to comment on Troy’s movies,” said defender Andrew Tinari. “… I’m a book reader. Right now I’m actually reading ‘Man’s Search for Meaning.’ I’m 30 pages in. We’ll see.”

Midfielder Daniel Bruce of Warrington, England, said the long bus rides is has been a largely new experience for him.

“You could you can go up and down the entirety of England (in the time) some of these journeys that we’re doing. Twice,” Bruce said. “… You kind of learn what your body needs on bus journeys and how to spend the time wisely.”

For United, which has a Group C leading 10 points with a 3-1-1 record (3-0-1 since the restart), in-state public health order restrictions have thus far led to what, for now, appears to be a 10 road game/six home game schedule with all six home matches to close the season are written in pencil in case those, too, have to be played on the road.

United has stayed in hotels the night before matches at Colorado Springs (July 11), Oklahoma City (Aug. 1) and Friday night in Arizona with all three including long post-match rides back to Albuquerque. The July 15 and 24 matches included same day, four-hour ride to El Paso, play a 90 minute match and then ride back after.

The grind, albeit one the entire league is facing to some extent (most groups cover less area than Group C), means Tyler Harris, the club’s head athletic trainer, is on overdrive making sure health and nutrition (forget about road trip junk food) principles normally focused on are tweaked to fit new timeframes and challenges. And there’s an added emphasis on proper recovery measures for athletes sitting so long in the cramped confines of a bus.

“Obviously on the bus we do lot of just talking with guys … just making sure in the right positions where they’re not sitting with their with their hips flexed, we get them up and move around, we take recovery boots on the road, as well for good circulation and muscle activation,” Harris said.

Lesesne said the team has also implemented over the past month twice a week meditation sessions as a team — something that he feels has helped some players amid a season of uncertainty but also can be useful on the long bus rides, too.

And, as they often do, United is getting an assist in making the challenging road schedule a little more manageable from the team’s supporters group. The Curse has begun an adopt-a-player type program where fans put together road packs for players including various items like snacks (nutritious ones, Curse President David Carl emphasized), playing cards, magazines or maybe pillows and blankets.

“We’re getting them (players and technical staff) all care packages to let them know how much they mean to us, to the state,” Carl said. “They’er on a bus 6, 7, 8 hours at a time, both ways. That can’t be fun and it can’t be easy so we want to try and make their lives a little more comfortable.”

The group had 60 volunteers sign up for this weekend’s care package drive for what is about a 25-man travel squad. Carl said they asked players to fill out a questionnaire with preferences for nutritious snacks and any possible food allergies.

It’s a program he says will continue throughout the season.

Above all, Lesesne said, his team has continued to impress him by adopting a no-excuses attitude about how to approach this unique season, including for the long road trips.

“It’s incredible the resilience that they’ve displayed,” Lesesne said. “And I think that we have a group that has a really good understanding of our club’s ethos, which is hard work, humility and diligence. They’ve really displayed that through some of the challenges of having to travel so much in the beginning of the season and the foreseeable future for us if we don’t get home matches. They haven’t complained once. I mean, they really haven’t, at least to me, and I think it just speaks a lot to their character — high, high character within our club.”

Miles and miles and miles

Here are the miles (roundtrip) from the team’s training field south of Albuquerque to the fields of their opponents for their seven scheduled road matches they will bus to since the season restart July 11:

• July 11 at Colorado Springs: 788 miles
• July 15 at El Paso: 528 miles
• July 24 at El Paso: 528 miles
• Aug. 1 at Oklahoma City: 1,098 miles
• Saturday at Phoenix: 830 miles
• Aug. 15 at Colorado Springs: 788 miles
• Aug. 29 at Colorado Springs: 788 miles
• TOTAL: 5,348 miles in 40 days

NOTE: The team plans to fly to Utah for the Aug. 19 and 22 matches against Real Monarchs SLC

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