The pandemic year of 2020 has generated a full volume of strange sports tales. New Mexico United deserves its own chapter.
United, a USL Championship soccer team that’s completed 75% of its schedule playing exclusively on the road, will finally enjoy a home opener Saturday – 382 miles from its base of operations in Albuquerque.
NMU will take on the Colorado Springs Switchbacks at Weidner Field, which normally qualifies as the latter’s home stadium. Not this time. The visiting side has effectively rented out the facility and made all of the day’s 1,000 tickets available to United fans. More than 800 tickets (available online at www.SwitchbacksFC.com) had been sold as of Wednesday.
The match is being billed as United’s home opener and fans making the trip north will receive flags to commemorate the occasion. They’ll also get masks and hand sanitizer, a fitting nod to coronavirus restrictions that have prevented NMU from playing at home this season. Under Colorado’s less-stringent restrictions, Saturday’s socially distanced crowd will be limited to 1,000 fans at the 5,000-seat venue.
“We haven’t been able to play in front of our fans so far,” United defender David Najem said during Wednesday’s team Zoom conference. “Just getting a little taste of that is going to be so nice. It’ll be fun for us. It’s been such a long time coming.”
As a subplot to the strange story line, United (7-3-2) will be in position to potentially celebrate on its temporary home pitch. A victory over the Switchbacks would clinch a top-two finish in the USL Championship Group C race and lock up a playoff berth.
NMU could also clinch with a draw or a loss, depending on third-place Real Monarchs SLC’s results this week, but coach Troy Lesesne and his players much prefer to settle that business on their own terms. United is battling El Paso Locomotive FC for first place in Group C and wants to build momentum for a head-to-head showdown set for Sept. 26.
New Mexico is 1-1-1 in three meetings with El Paso this season and dropped a 3-2 decision in the most recent contest on Sept. 5. NMU bounced back with a solid 2-0 road victory over Real Monarchs last week, getting two goals from midfielder Amando Moreno, who has posted goals and/or assists in nine consecutive matches.
“I thought our guys displayed incredible focus and resilience,” Lesesne said. “We kind of overwhelmed (Real Monarchs) early and did a great job pressing them throughout the match.”
This week’s match will be United’s fourth against the Switchbacks this season. NMU posted two wins and a draw in its previous trips to Colorado Springs, and Lesesne hopes seeing friendly faces in the stands will spur another positive result.
“That’s the beauty of playing in front of, I hope, 1,000 fans,” he said. “It’s been a long season, and we need a little more energy right now.”