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One final United-El Paso matchup has big stakes

One more time for all the marbles.

New Mexico United’s soccer rivalry with El Paso Locomotive FC was not intended to be a best-of-five series in 2020, but that’s what it’s become. After effectively splitting four regular-season meetings (one win apiece and two draws), the two regional USL Championship foes will play what amounts to a winner-take-all tiebreaker Saturday night.

The winner of that Western Conference semifinal moves on to the USL Championship’s final four, while the loser heads home for the winter. It’s a far cry from when the two sides met for a preseason match in El Paso back in February – before the COVID-19 pandemic transformed NMU into the ultimate road warriors.

With both teams coming off dramatic playoff victories last week, the high-stakes tiebreaker seems only fitting.

United coach Troy Lesesne on Wednesday described a conversation he had with striker Devon Sandoval on the team’s flight from San Antonio to Albuquerque on Sunday. NMU defeated San Antonio FC 1-0 in overtime the previous evening and later learned El Paso had advanced by edging FC Tulsa on penalty kicks.

“Dev was a little more animated than usual – not much but a little,” Lesesne said during Wednesday’s media Zoom conference. “He said, ‘Look, this is the way we all want it. Let’s go settle the score. Whoever wins the match is the team that should progress to the Western Conference finals.'”

United defender Sam Hamilton agreed.

“Obviously it’s a playoff game, so there’s always an extra want-to-win,” Hamilton said. “The fact that it’s against a rival in El Paso, there’s that much more to get up for. Regardless of the fact we’ve played them five times already, if you include the preseason game, we want to win. The fact that it’s against them, even better.”

United and Locomotive FC could hardly be more evenly matched. Each side scored six goals combined in their matches, and they’re separated by only two goals for the season. El Paso, which has played 17 matches to NMU’s 16, has a 28-26 edge in goals scored and has posted eight clean sheets to United’s seven.

Locomotive FC finished the regular season with 32 points and won Group C, while United (27 points) advanced to the playoffs as group runner-up. But United accomplished the feat while playing all its matches on the road because of pandemic restrictions, including playing four times at El Paso’s Southwest University Park.

“We’re really confident,” United midfielder Chris Wehan said. “We have the mindset that it doesn’t matter who we play or where we play this time of year. We’ll have a plan in place and be ready to go.”

STAYING FOCUSED: Tempers flared during United’s 1-0 playoff win in San Antonio when SAFC’s Mitchell Taintor taunted Sandoval after a takedown in overtime. Despite suggestions to the contrary, Sandoval posted on social media that Taintor did not spit on him but cursed him and his hairstyle.

United players quickly came to Sandoval’s defense and it briefly appeared things may escalate. But after some brief pushing and shoving, the match resumed without further incident.

“I’ve gone up against (Taintor) a few times and it didn’t surprise me,” Sandoval said. “It also didn’t surprise me the reaction of my teammates. … They had my back. That’s what we do, we have each other’s back. But also in that moment, there was a smile on my face because I knew they’d lost their heads.”

Lesesne said he was pleased with his team’s response.

“In that moment I wouldn’t have been as cool as Devon,” Lesesne said, “… I love the way our team handled it because we’re going to stick up for one another. We’re never going to let someone disrespect us, and that was a disrespectful action that took place. But I also don’t think we lost our focus on what the ultimate goal was, getting a result. Our guys kept their heads and, really, the game was over at that stage.”

July 15 United 2, El Paso 2 Chris Wehan (11th minute) and Devon Sandoval (76th) netted goals for NMU a late tally by Andrew Fox helped El Paso salvage a draw

July 24 United 2, El Paso 1 Wehan (35th) and Sandoval (first-half stoppage time) produced again as United handed Locomotive FC what would be its lone home loss.

Sept. 5 El Paso 3, United 2 David Estrada (13th) and Sandoval (41st) helped United take a 2-1 halftime lead, but an own goal and Dylan Mares’ tally in the 88th minute rallied El Paso.

Sept. 26 United 0, El Paso 0 United goalkeeper Cody Mizell and El Paso counterpart Logan Ketterer posted clean sheets as the regular-season series ended even at 1-1-2.

Oct. 17 United at El Paso USL Championship playoffs, Western Conference semifinals

Notes: United won preseason match 4-1 over Locomotive FC on Feb. 14. … All matches played in El Paso because of New Mexico coronavirus restrictions.

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