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United, El Paso building a rivalry

(Note: Story has been updated and corrected to reflect the correct channel for Estrella TV.)

It hasn’t taken New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive FC long to forge an impressive rivalry.

The two second-year USL Championship squads square off Saturday at El Paso’s Southwest University Park, and it doesn’t feel like just another match on the 2020 schedule.

United (6-2-2) comes in leading second-place El Paso (4-2-3) by five points in the USL’s Group C standings, and it appears all but certain that these two sides will claim the group’s two postseason berths. Both are riding four-match unbeaten streaks and have created a sizeable cushion between themselves and third-place Colorado Springs with the regular-season winding down.

A first-place finish in the group, however, is still up for grabs. Saturday’s meeting could go a long way toward deciding that outcome.

“We like the position we’re in currently,” United coach Troy Lesesne said during this week’s media Zoom conference. “We want to stay there. We’re focused on a really, really tough opponent and trying to get three points to keep our lead at the top of the table.”

With six matches remaining (El Paso has seven), New Mexico has 20 points, El Paso has 15 and the teams are scheduled to play one more time (Sept. 26) before season’s end. A win would give United an eight-point advantage, while a loss would bring El Paso to within two points of the group lead.

United’s players are well aware of the significance of Saturday’s matchup, which was originally scheduled for Albuquerque but moved because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions.

“Obviously, El Paso has a team that can give us some trouble,” midfielder Amado Moreno said, “but I think the mindset’s there for everyone. We want to show what kind of team we are, bring our style of play. We want to stay in first place.”

New Mexico earned a draw and a win in its first two visits to El Paso this season and is 2-0-2 head to head all time. While United thus far has gotten the better of its regional rival, El Paso earned something of a last laugh in 2019, advancing to the USL’s Western Conference finals while United was ousted in round one of the playoffs.

The clubs have been successful with different approaches to personnel. El Paso coach Mark Lowry has been more apt to tinker with his roster and has added players since the team’s last meeting with United in July. Lesesne tends to stand pat with his roster so long as things are going well.

“If I’m a player, I love the messaging that you do the job and I love the job you do,” Lesesne said. “I don’t need to bring someone in. I trust our players, and it’s up to them to uphold that trust. El Paso has a different mindset, different philosophy.”

Lesesne doesn’t plan any tactical changes to adjust for El Paso’s new personnel, but neither is he about to sell his team’s top rival short.

“It’s a team we have great respect for,” he said, “and going to El Paso for a third time will be a tough test.”

Southwest University Park figures to be a bit louder this time around. Its attendance limit was increased this week from 800 to 1,500 fans.

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