Under normal circumstances, a scoreless draw on the soccer pitch is not the kind of result Devon Sandoval enjoys.
Saturday night was an exception.
New Mexico United and El Paso Locomotive FC battled through 90-plus minutes without a goal at Southwest University Park and effectively pushed host El Paso a step closer to clinching first place in the United Soccer League Championship’s Group C.
Locomotive FC holds a four-point edge over United (28-24) with time running out in the regular season. El Paso has two road matches left on its schedule, while NMU has one — Wednesday night at Real Monarchs. El Paso and New Mexico have both clinched berths in the playoffs, which are set to begin Oct. 8-11.
For United, Saturday’s draw was a missed opportunity to close the gap on Locomotive FC, but NMU’s prolific striker saw growth in United’s performance and came away encouraged.
“It was a battle,” Sandoval said during a Zoom media conference Monday. “We bowed but we didn’t break. If this was last year, I don’t know if we get a point on the road. There were a lot of positives to take away.”
United faded late in 2019, the franchise’s first season, but Sandoval believes this year’s squad has done a better job persevering under more difficult circumstances. Because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions, NMU is the only USL Championship team to play all of its matches on the road.
“It’s our second year as a team and that plays a big part of it,” the Albuquerque native said. “We’re more resilient, guys are more experienced. I think if it’s the same team we had last year, in the situation we’re in, I don’t think we’d be in second place right now. Guys have stepped up.”
Coach Troy Lesesne agreed, pointing out that United fought off an opening flurry by El Paso on Saturday and put itself in position to win late. He credited goalkeeper Cody Mizell, who made several outstanding plays in posting his fifth clean sheet of the season.
“Our guys did a great job weathering the storm,” Lesesne said. “That bodes well going into the playoffs.”
It appears unlikely NMU will make up last week’s scheduled match at Rio Grande Valley FC, which was postponed because of positive COVID-19 test results within RGVFC’s “covered persons” umbrella. No official announcement has been made, but RGVFC has a match scheduled Saturday and other postponements within its group that take priority, Lesesne said.
“At this point we’re focused on playing 15 matches (instead of 16),” he said.
NOTES: Saturday’s match represented Sandoval’s 200th professional appearance in USL, MLS, NASL and US Open Cup play. “I can’t describe how big a deal that is,” Lesesne said. “Longevity in this profession is very difficult.” … If United finishes second in Group C, it would face San Antonio FC in round one of the USL playoffs. SAFC (10-2-3) has clinched first place in Group D. The top finisher in Group C will draw either FC Tulsa (4-2-7) or Austin Bold FC (4-3-7). (Click here for updated USLC standings.)
NM United at Real Monarchs, 7:30 p.m., 101.7 FM, ESPN+ (streaming)