Normally clean-shaven Kalen Ryden tuned into this week’s New Mexico United media conference sporting new facial hair.
With his team preparing for Saturday’s United Soccer League Championship playoff opener at San Antonio FC, Ryden knew the question was coming.
“Would I call this a playoff ‘stache? Maybe,” he said with a grin during the team’s weekly Zoom conference. “Hopefully I’ll be growing it for a while.”
United begins what it hopes will be an extended playoff run with a stiff challenge at Toyota Field. SAFC (10-3-3) has not lost at home this season, and the Group D winner is considered a legitimate championship contender.
But if any team is well prepared for a road test, it’s New Mexico (8-4-3). Coach Troy Lesesne’s team has played all of its matches away from home this season because of its home state’s pandemic restrictions. Group C’s runners-up say they don’t mind playing an underdog role in postseason.
“I kind of liken it to our U.S. Open Cup opener last year,” Lesesne said. “We face a tough opponent and get a boost right at the start. There are only 16 teams standing, so now it’s a sprint.”
United began a stunning run to the 2019 U.S. Open Cup quarterfinals by battling to a road draw with Phoenix Rising, advancing on penalty kicks. A similar result Saturday would be fine with NMU’s players and coaches.
It won’t come easily against an SAFC team that scored 30 goals this season and ranked among the USL Championship’s best defensively, conceding just 14 goals with seven clean sheets in 16 matches. United tallied 23 goals in 15 matches with its much-improved defense conceding 17 goals and posting six clean sheets.
Momentum can also play into postseason results, and United has an edge in that department. NMU played to a hard-earned draw at El Paso and defeated Real Monarchs in its final two matches, while SAFC finished the regular season with back-to-back losses.
Ryden, who helped Real Monarchs win a league championship in 2019 before signing with New Mexico, believes postseason success is more a matter of consistency than catching opponents off guard.
Nonetheless, a playoff mustache and a little extra enthusiasm can’t hurt.
“I do think guys have some extra buzz about them right now,” Ryden said. “Our players know it’s playoff time. If you want to win a championship, guys have to shine this time of year.”
USL Championship playoffs: NM United at San Antonio FC, 7 p.m., 101.7 FM, ESPN+ (streaming). (Click here for the USLC’s Saturday playoff schedule.)