USL Championship playoff match in San Antonio, here we come.
New Mexico United’s players and coaches might have preferred playing a rescheduled match Tuesday with a first-place finish in the USL Championship’s Group C on the line. That scenario could have played out had rival El Paso failed to win Sunday at Real Monarchs SLC.
No such luck. El Paso won 4-0, clinching the top spot in Group C and sending United into the playoffs as runner-up. As a result, NMU (8-4-3) will visit San Antonio FC (10-3-3) on Saturday at 7 p.m.
The two sides did not meet this season and United coach Troy Lesesne, ironically, had to base his early impressions of San Antonio on a September 12 match against El Paso. At that time, Locomotive FC was battling United for first place and helped its cause with a 2-1 home win over SAFC.
“We watched San Antonio against El Paso because it was a big match for us at the time,” Lesesne said during a ZOOM media conference Monday. “They’re a very good team, very talented, tough and well-coached. We’re looking forward to the challenge of facing them.”
Thanks to Sunday’s results, United will enter the USL Championship playoffs well-rested. NMU wrapped up its regular-season Wednesday and now has the luxury of a 10-day break between matches.
The opportunity to start postseason fresh is something of a bonus for United, the only USL team to play its entire schedule on the road in 2020. New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions did not allow the team to play at home.
NMU defender Kalen Ryden said the prospect of extra rest took at least some of the sting out of El Paso clinching Group C’s top spot.
“I think you could look at the situation both ways,” Ryden said. “I know because of the rivalry with El Paso, winning the group was kind of big to a lot of people here.”
Ryden, in his first season with United after helping Real Monarchs win last season’s league championship, said he would have been happy to make one extra trip to play a potential group-winning match. On the other hand …
“Now we get a little more rest and we can put full focus on San Antonio,” he said.
New Mexico and El Paso may yet have an opportunity to settle this season’s bragging rights after finishing the regular season with a 1-1-2 record head to head. Locomotive FC hosts FC Tulsa in this week’s playoff opener. Should United and El Paso both win, they would square off in round two.
That prospect is not currently on the minds of Lesesne and his players, who were knocked out of the 2019 postseason in a play-in game after fading late in the regular season.
“This is not a play-in game,” goalkeeper Cody Mizell said. “We have a deeper squad this year and we’re going in on the same amount of rest as everybody else. I’m confident we can go to San Antonio and beat them. That’s the mindset we need to have.”
NOTES: San Antonio’s loss to El Paso was its first of the season after an 8-0-3 start. SAFC went 2-3-0 in its final five matches. … After missing two of United’s last three matches, Lesesne expects to be on the sideline Saturday in San Antonio. Lesesne and his wife, Amanda, welcomed their first child last week. “I’ve had two hours of sleep the last two nights. I feel refreshed and well-rested,” Lesesne joked.