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United can get very close to playoff clinch with win Saturday in Utah

New Mexico United head coach Troy Lesesne, center, shouts instructions to his team from the sideline of their Aug. 15 match against the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC at Weidner Field. (Courtesy Isaiah J. Downing/Switchbacks FC)

The third time hasn’t been a charm for New Mexico United thus far in 2020.

The USL Championship’s resident road warriors fared remarkably well through two rounds of competition against their Group C counterparts, posting a combined 5-0-1 record against Colorado Springs, El Paso and Real Monarchs.

But United (6-3-2), which has played all its matches on the road this season because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions, is 0-1-1 in its current and third Group C tour with a draw at Colorado Springs and a loss at El Paso. NMU visits Real Monarchs SLC on Saturday in what suddenly qualifies as a key match.

With 20 points and five regular-season matches remaining, first-place United can all but lock up a playoff spot with a victory at Zions Bank Stadium in the Salt Lake City area. The top two teams from each group qualify for the postseason, and the third-place Real Monarchs (3-6-1) come into Saturday’s meeting with 10 points and six matches left.

A victory Saturday would give NMU 23 points and a 13-point cushion over Real Monarchs. United would then need to win just one of its final four matches to secure a playoff spot.

First things first, however.

After struggling for most of the season, Real Monarchs have won their last two matches and can strengthen their postseason hopes with a win Saturday. United coach Troy Lesesne knows his side’s previous two wins (2-0 and 2-1) at Zions Bank Stadium this season guarantee nothing, but he doesn’t see complacency as a problem.

“These players are champing at the bit right now with what’s in front of us,” Lesesne said. “We’re still at the top of the group and we have an opportunity to stay there. … We need to focus and do our job and the next job is Real Monarchs.”

Neither Lesesne nor his players put much stock in the idea that 11 straight road matches have begun to wear on the team. NMU is the only USL Championship squad that has not played at home in 2020.

“As far as the road trips go, I don’t care,” striker Devon Sandoval said. “I don’t think guys should care anymore. We should control the controllables and expect to be on the road. I’m ready to go for Saturday.”

Despite suffering a 3-2 loss at El Paso last week, United remains a confident bunch.

“We need to learn from our mistakes but we also need to put the El Paso game behind us,” midfielder Amando Moreno said. “This week is another opportunity to stay in first place. That has to be our focus.”

Sandoval agreed.

“It’s an important match, for sure,” he said, “especially coming off a loss at El Paso where we didn’t have our sharpest performance. It’s definitely tough beating a team three times in a row but we’ve got to take care of our business on this trip and get three points.”

Saturday

NM United at Real Monarchs, noon, ESPN+ , 101,7 FM, Estrella TV (Channel 7.2 UHF, Comcast 386)

(See the updated USLC standings here, and the schedule here.)

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