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United is still tripping, but now it’s the playoffs

It’s certainly fair to say New Mexico United has come a long way to reach the 2020 USL Championship playoffs.

The league’s most accomplished road act has logged more than 10,000 miles this season and hopes to keep the odometer spinning through October. United’s first-round playoff match at San Antonio FC on Saturday represents its longest excursion (1,450 miles round-trip) to date and will push the team’s ridiculous season mileage total to 12,102.

Such is the glamorous life of the league’s only road-exclusive squad, unable to play at home because of New Mexico’s pandemic restrictions yet finding a way to grind into the USL Championship’s 16-team playoff field with an 8-4-3 record.

“Nobody’s done what we’ve done,” United coach Troy Lesesne said recently. “When you consider everything the pandemic’s thrown at us, I’m incredibly proud of what this team has accomplished.”

Lesesne lauded his team’s ability to avoid positive COVID-19 test results as it contended for a postseason berth and endured weekly trips around the Southwest. NMU will fly to San Antonio, Texas, for Saturday’s playoff game and employed air travel to some of its more distant regular-season destinations (Salt Lake City and Oklahoma City), but most of the road trips involved long bus rides.

It’s not all fun and games. Ask goalkeeper Cody Mizell, one of several United players and coaches who have young children at home.

“My wife and I had a newborn in January and I haven’t been with him on a Saturday in three months,” Mizell said before the team’s off date last weekend. “Some of our trips have been kind of crazy, too. We went into one city and had to check into a hotel that had no power. We basically sat around our rooms all day staring at our phones.”

Still, Lesesne said the team long ago “wrapped our heads around not playing any matches in New Mexico,” and has refused to use extended travel as an excuse to underperform.

As they prepare for a difficult playoff assignment against San Antonio FC (10-3-3 and unbeaten at home this season), United’s players and coaches can see an upside to being road-tested. They are undaunted by the likely prospect that – should they advance – future playoff matches will also be played outside New Mexico.

“It’s a joy to be in the playoffs,” Mizell said. “It doesn’t matter who or where we play now, we’re excited.”

WATCH FESTIVAL: NMU will host Somos Unidos Fest, a socially distanced gathering/watch party for fans Saturday at Motorama at the Downs Santa Fe. The event includes live music, food trucks and games at the outdoor venue. Gates open at 2 p.m. and the United-SAFC match will be shown on the large screen beginning at 7 p.m. Free drinks and “Road Warriors” water bottles will be provided and watch spaces are large enough to accommodate tailgating. Tickets and more information are available at newmexicoutd.com.

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