Could an offseason influx of depth and talent actually be a mixed blessing for New Mexico United?
Perhaps, but you won’t hear coach Troy Lesesne complaining.
United opens its third USL Championship season Saturday night in Edinburg, Texas, with high expectations. NMU will face a revamped Rio Grande Valley FC squad, but Lesesne conceded that preparing for the opposition is not this week’s only challenge.
Asked about choosing his starting 11 for the season-opener, Lesesne said the task is more complex than in seasons past.
“Very difficult,” he said. “… The 11 guys I select this weekend, eight or nine other guys on our roster will be unhappy about it. But that’s the way you want it, a very competitive group with guys who push each other.”
The offseason losses of some key players, including goalkeeper Cody Mizell and midfielder Chris Wehan, combined with some significant signings adds intrigue to Lesesne’s lineup decisions. Exactly how newcomers Brian Brown, Isidro Martinez, Micheal Azira, Harry Swartz, Ilija Ilic and Alex Touche will mesh with a strong cast of returnees is anyone’s guess.
Nor has Lesesne revealed who will replace Mizell as United’s starting goalkeeper. Returnee Philipp Beigl and newcomer Alex Tambakis battled for the spot throughout the preseason.
Lesesne is taking a practical if diplomatic approach to his lineup choices. The problem, he said, is a good one to have.
“Over the preseason we saw different guys step up at different times,” he said. “We’re going to need that over the course of the regular season, too.”
Unlike the preseason, Lesesne and his players cannot afford to focus entirely on their own side. Saturday’s foe, Rio Grande Valley FC, made even more offseason changes than NMU, and the Toros figure to be well prepared to face United.
For starters, RGVFC president Ron Patel knows plenty about New Mexico pro soccer. He served as United’s chief revenue officer during the club’s first season and was president of the USL League Two Albuquerque Sol prior to NMU’s launch.
Rio Grande Valley also brought back successful coach Wilmer Cabrera during the offseason. Cabrera led the Toros to a playoff berth in 2016 and spent the interim coaching the MLS Houston Dynamo and Montreal Impact.
“Rio Grande Valley has some inside information on New Mexico United,” Lesesne said with a smile. “Let’s start with that. They also have one of the best coaches in the league in Wilmer Cabrera, so we have a lot of respect for our opponent.”
RGVFC has added on-field talent as well after finishing just 2-9-3 in the abbreviated 2020 USL Championship season. Midfielders Wan Kuzain (Sporting KC) and Adrian Vera (LA Galaxy II) figure to upgrade the Toros’ attack.
But Lesesne and his players are confident in their ability to contend in the USL Championship’s strong Mountain Division. They’ll face division foes Rio Grande Valley, El Paso, Austin, San Antonio, Colorado Springs and Real Monarchs (Salt Lake City) four times apiece during the upcoming 32-game season.
“The pieces are in place,” defender Josh Suggs said. “Talent, leadership, depth, it’s there, so consistency will be the big thing for us. We just have to bring it every week.”
NEW MEXICO UNITED (8-4-3 last season)
at RIO GRANDE VALLEY FC (2-9-3)
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., Edinburg, Texas. ESPN+ (streaming)
United and the City are hosting a watch party at Civic Plaza, with fans to be separated into pods of six. Pods are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is “whatever you want to donate to the (Somos Unidos) foundation.” Gates open at 4:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
United: It remains to be seen what coach Troy Lesesne’s starting 11 will look like
in the opener, but some new faces turned heads in the preseason. Midfielder Isidro “Chelo” Martinez has shown an impressive knack for scoring and setting up goals. He played the past two seasons for Rio Grande Valley FC and collegiately at UT Rio Grande Valley. United will also have a new goalkeeper, but it’s been a battle for the starting spot. Either returnee Philipp Beigl or newcomer Alex Tambakis will take over for the departed Cody Mizell. Both played well in the preseason.
Rio Grande Valley: The Toros made a number of offseason changes, and coach Wilmer Cabrera figures to make a quick impact, returning to the club after spending four seasons coaching MLS teams. Defender Erik Pimentel adds talent and experience after a distinguished career with Mexico City’s Club America. Pimentel won four championships with Club America. Like United, Rio Grande Valley will have a new starter at goalkeeper with newcomer Colin Miller (Loudoun United) and veteran Tyler Deric (Houston Dynamo) on the roster. Deric made more than 100 appearances with the Dynamo.
United and Rio Grande Valley will be particularly glad to put the pandemic-impacted 2020 season behind them. NMU performed well but was forced to play all of its 17 matches outside New Mexico because of state COVID restrictions. RGVFC had two matches canceled (one against United) and one postponed due to COVID issues and finished the season 2-9-3.