Having its long-and-winding 2020 season end in a flash was a little tough for New Mexico United to swallow.
Barely three days removed from Saturday night’s USL Championship playoff loss in El Paso – one decided by a penalty kick shootout – United coach Troy Lesesne and his players were still trying to fully process the end to a strange but successful season played entirely on the road.
“I talked to the guys and told them they brought immense pride to the community,” Lesesne said in a Zoom media conference Tuesday. “Doing it all on the road, putting it all on the line every time out just epitomizes what this year was like.”
Because of New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions, United was the only USL Championship team forced to play all its matches outside its home state. Nonetheless, NMU qualified for postseason, picked up the franchise’s first playoff win and was a bounce or two away from advancing to this week’s Western Conference final.
The bizarre season during which they logged nearly 13,000 miles is not one United’s players or coaches would care to repeat, but it is one they’ll never forget.
“We were hopeful we’d be able to get home games, but we knew deep down we probably wouldn’t,” striker Devon Sandoval said. “In the end, that just pushed us to win even more. We were able to retain our strong identity and strong culture.”
Still, that sudden ending was rough.
United pulled even with rival El Paso Locomotive FC on Romeo Parkes’ 30-yard laser shot in the 95th minute of Saturday’s Western Conference semifinal. Tied at 1-1, NMU took all the momentum into overtime and relentlessly pressured El Paso’s goal.
“Once Romeo’s shot went in, I thought for sure we were gonna win,” Sandoval said.
Added goalkeeper Cody Mizell, “I felt like the latter half of the match, we were the dominant team.”
Despite several quality chances, United was not able to cash in a go-ahead goal and luck was not on its side when the contest went to penalty kicks. Mizell got both hands on El Paso’s first attempt and deflected it on a dive to his right, but the ball had just enough topspin to bounce over him and into the net.
“I study guys and what try to prepare for those situations,” Mizell said, “but there’s not a lot of skill involved, you just try to guess right and react. That first guy didn’t hit it that well and it still got behind me. Penalties are penalties.”
All the more frustrating was that El Paso ultimately prevailed after goalkeeper Logan Ketterer stopped a fourth-round shot by Parkes, who had provided United with a spark and its lone goal after entering the match midway through the second half.
“Yeah, this one stings more than any other one,” Mizell said. “When you go to PKs, it feels like leaving it up to chance. Even last year, losing to Sacramento (in the playoffs) when they beat you handily, it’s kind of easier to swallow.”
Even so, Lesesne and his players took pride in what they accomplished during the pandemic-altered season. And while uncertainty remains about when the 2021 season will begin and what it might look like, United is already starting to look ahead.
“Those conversations started (Tuesday),” Lesesne said. “We’re starting to do exit interviews and thinking about personnel and, hopefully, getting guys back for next year.”
Lesesne said he intends to return for 2021 and hopes the season will include home matches and a return to something closer to normal. He does believe United’s season on the road will end up as a positive building block.
“Somber as this all feels right now, this will fuel us to go forward in 2021,” Lesesne said. “I’m not fully ready to turn the page yet, but I think the future is bright.”
SEASON CELEBRATION: United will host a final, socially distanced gathering Saturday at Motorama at the Downs Santa Fe. Players and coaches will attend the drive-in event and admission will be “pay what feels right” with proceeds benefitting the Somos Unidos Foundation. Gates open at 2:30 p.m. with a movie beginning at 6:30 p.m. Masks and social distancing are mandatory. For more information go to NewMexicoUTD.com.