It’s fair to say New Mexico United is ready to get its 2021 show on the road.
After reaching last season’s USL Championship Western Conference semifinals, United spent the offseason stockpiling talent and the preseason building momentum. NMU won its final four preseason matches, racking up eight goals total in just the last two.
Starting Saturday, the matches count. New Mexico opens the regular season at Rio Grande Valley FC and the buzz was palpable Tuesday during a media conference at the club’s Mesa del Sol practice facility.
“Incredibly excited,” coach Troy Lesesne said when asked about the upcoming 32-game schedule. “Between the preseason and the future, there’s a lot to be excited about. This team has come together strong.”
Lesesne and United’s just-announced co-captains – Devon Sandoval, Kalen Ryden and Josh Suggs – did not shy away from the high expectations they have for the third-year club in 2021.
“This is the best team we’ve ever had,” Suggs said. “We’re more competitive in every single spot. There’s no reason we won’t have a successful season.”
Lesesne and his players fully expect to give fans something to cheer about, and they admittedly can’t wait to experience a few cheers. After opening with road matches at Rio Grande Valley and El Paso, NMU is scheduled to play its home opener May 15 against Austin Bold FC at Isotopes Park.
New Mexico’s coronavirus restrictions forced United to play exclusively outside its home state last season. For much of the campaign, NMU was the state’s only team in action at the professional, collegiate or high school levels.
Suggs said the team was keenly aware of the spotlight.
“Last year it felt like we were representing the whole state,” the Las Cruces native said. “The state was struggling and we were the outlet. Now, with things getting better, we can have games in front of our fans and kind of share that experience. It’ll be awesome.”
Under current conditions, the state’s public health order limits attendance at outdoor sporting events to 25% of capacity. That would mean roughly 3,100 fans at Isotopes Park, though conditions could change as more people become fully vaccinated.
Ryden, an Oklahoma native who joined United last season, said he’s beyond eager to play at home regardless of the attendance limit.
“The fan base was one of the main reasons I came here and I didn’t get to experience that last year,” he said. “I’m pretty sure 3,000 New Mexicans in the stands would be better than 10,000 Oklahomans.”
When his statement raised a few eyebrows, Ryden added a quick qualifier.
“Hey, Oklahomans are my people,” he said. “If we were talking about football, that would be different.”