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NM United forging new defensive identity

New Mexico United defender Kalen Ryden, center, is among the backline players helping the team become more reliant on defense this season. (Photo courtesy Isaiah J. Downing/Switchbacks FC)

Real Monarchs SLC have found defense of their 2019 USL Championship crown a tough go early in this 2020 season.

The loss of their best defender, Kalen Ryden, from the previous two seasons has had something to do with that every bit as much as it has had something to do with the early season good fortunes, and maybe even the start of a new defensive identity, for the New Mexico United team he now plays for.

“Off to Salt Lake City for a 2-game week,” Ryden posted on Twitter after the team’s flight to Utah on Tuesday morning. “Made a lot of special memories out in the mountains and I’m really excited to head back and compete against some familiar faces.”

For SLC (1-3-1, 4 points Group C), the pleasantries will be limited to off the pitch. A chance to secure six points at home against Group C leading United (4-2-1, 13 points Group C) would be a great start to getting back on track and trying to again orchestrate the same sort of second-half surge that the club rode to the 2019 title.

But as United prepares for a pair of matches – Wednesday and Saturday at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah – it does so with a newfound defensive confidence being forged by a backline led by Ryden and others who helped secure the team’s 1-0 win at Colorado Springs, the team’s second clean sheet in three matches.

“I was telling the boys after the game, sometimes a 1-nil win feels a lot better than a 3-nil win just because you know you’ve done a job defensively to keep Colorado off the back of the net,” said goalkeeper Cody Mizell, who has been tremendous this season for United.

While the two clean sheets were, of course, on either side of that embarrassing 5-2 loss at Phoenix on Aug. 8, the reality is despite injuries, United’s back line and Mizell’s repeated highlight-reel saves have breathed a new confidence in a team that once relied almost exclusively on prolific goal scorers to carry them.

Maybe illustrating that point best is the fact that Saturday’s 1-0 win was the first time seven matches into season No. 2 for the club that it has registered a 1-0 victory in a sport that sees its fair share of such outcomes.

“The first person to tell me (that was the team’s first ever 1-0 win) was who you would think it is, which is Mr. Mizell,” United coach Troy Lesesne said. “I said to the group (after the game) it’s kind of a dubious honor at that point to say that that’s something that we achieved in our second year, but nonetheless, I’m really happy that it came. … 1-nil results on the road like that really boosts your confidence to know that you can see out a game without having to get the second goal, and that’s something that we need to improve on. We can’t always rely on getting that second, third goal.”

WEDNESDAY: NM United at Real MonarchsSLC, 8 p.m., ESPN+ (streaming), 101.7 FM

TEAM OF THE WEEK: Defender Austin Yearwood, another defender who played a vital role in that clean sheet at Colorado Springs on Saturday, was named on Tuesday to the USL Championship Week 8 Team of the Week. The 26-year-old from Charlotte, who has made 17 starts in two seasons with United, is the fourth New Mexico player to earn a Team of the Week nod this season in the 35-team league.

The previous honorees included midfielder Chris Wehan in Week 6, striker Devon Sandoval in week 5 and midfielder Saalih Muhammad in Week 3.

POWER RANKINGS: The USL Championship’s weekly Power Rankings saw United inch back up two spots to No. 8 after the 1-0 win at Colorado Springs. The team’s highest ranking of the season was No. 7 two weeks ago before its 5-2 loss to Phoenix Rising.

TABLE TALK: United’s 13 points have them atop the Group 3 standings heading into their eighth match of the 16-game season. El Paso (11 points, also through seven matches) is second followed by SLC and Colorado Springs, with four points apiece – SLC through five games and Colorado Springs through six.

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