For New Mexico United, the first official day of spring 2021 is cause for celebration.
Saturday marks both the change of seasons and the end of a prolonged drought for the state’s USL Championship soccer franchise. NMU will host rival El Paso Locomotive FC for a preseason match at United’s Mesa del Sol training facility at 3 p.m. – its first home match of any kind since 2019.
United’s players and coaches talked about the occasion Friday during a media/training session at Mesa del Sol. Roughly 300 fans will be allowed to attend in socially distanced pods. All available tickets sold out in minutes, a team spokesperson said.
Playing matches at the training facility, which currently lacks stands, still qualifies as a welcome change. New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions required the team to play all of its 2020 matches on the road.
“Even if we didn’t have any fans, just being able to play here in Albuquerque is through the roof,” said defender Kalen Ryden, who signed with NMU last season and has yet to play a home match with the club. “Even though it’s a preseason match, I’m pretty sure the fans are going to be in midseason form. I’m very excited.”
Like Ryden, United newcomer and Cibola High alum Sergio Rivas was all smiles Friday.
“Man, I can’t wait to play here,” Rivas said. “Everyone is pumped. Imagine what the regular season will be like.”
United coach Troy Lesesne has been doing just that. After advancing to the Western Conference semifinals last season, NMU made a number of offseason roster moves that Lesesne believes improved his team.
“On paper, I think this is the strongest group we’ve had,” Lesesne said. “There’s some pressure that goes with that, but that’s the way we want it. I’m really, really excited that this could be a team that brings a championship to Albuquerque and hoists a trophy.”
Fans who attend or watch Saturday’s match on social media (United will offer live streaming on Twitter, Facebook and YouTube), can expect to see both new and returning faces. Unlimited substitutions are allowed in preseason matches, and Lesesne said he plans to use them as evaluation opportunities.
One of the more noteworthy position battles will be at goalkeeper after former starter Cody Mizell recently signed an MLS contract. Returnee Philipp Beigl and newcomer Alex Tambakis will be vying to start in net, and both figure to see considerable preseason action.
Other starting spots also are up for grabs, which figures to add some intrigue to United’s preseason schedule and perhaps some stress to Lesesne’s life.
“I think the newcomers we’ve added will be able to make us better,” he said. “Guys are really competing in training and it will be difficult for me to choose the right players to give us our strongest lineup. But I like that. It means we’re making progress.”
Things are also progressing at United’s training facility, which is surrounded by new fencing to protect a natural turf surface that is beginning to show spring growth. United owner Peter Trevisani said he hopes to have stands and locker room facilities at the facility by next season.
But while NMU personnel and fans look ahead with anticipation, Saturday’s preseason opener will undoubtedly bring a few memories of 2020 to mind. United faced El Paso six times in 2020 – four regular-season matches, one in preseason and the last in postseason. The finale ended in a 1-1 draw with El Paso advancing on penalty kicks.
“Yeah, we’re trying to set the record for the most times playing El Paso,” Lesesne quipped.
For Ryden, neither the opponent nor the final result will be a primary focus Saturday.
“For the guys who were part of our road-warrior season last year, just knowing we have home games is so exciting,” he said. “There’s a different vibe here now.”
Preseason: NM United vs. El Paso, 3 p.m., Mesa del Sol Training Complex