New Mexico United will make it an even 20 – as in 20 consecutive matches outside its home state – Saturday night in El Paso.
Will 20 prove to be a lucky number?
United (0-1), which has a long-awaited home match looming next week, first hopes to bring some momentum into its return to Isotopes Park. It won’t come easily against rival El Paso Locomotive FC, and NMU coach Troy Lesesne knows it.
“El Paso’s a great team,” Lesesne said. “They’ve been to the Western Conference finals the last two years, and that’s where we want to be. We want to take a step forward. Matches like this one are important.”
Locomotive FC undoubtedly will be motivated as Saturday’s match is its season opener. Like United, El Paso made some offseason roster additions that Lesesne believes will make an already solid side that much stronger.
But NMU has its own reasons to circle all four of this season’s meetings with El Paso on the 2021 calendar. Look no further than last season’s playoff meeting, which ended in a 1-1 draw before the Locos prevailed in penalty kicks (5-3) to earn a trip to the USL Championship’s Western Conference final and end United’s season.
“We’re using that as fuel,” Lesesne said.
United also will be looking to shake off last week’s season-opening 1-0 loss at Rio Grande Valley FC. NMU’s revamped lineup showed flashes of potential against the Toros but was unable to sustain much pressure or generate many quality scoring chances.
Midfielder Juan Pablo Guzman believes facing a quality rival will force United to step up its game.
“It’s exactly what you want a rivalry to be,” Guzman said. “El Paso’s a great squad, really talented players, coached really well, and it seems like every game we play gets more competitive and has a little more history to it. Longevity only adds to something like this. We’ve played them a lot and we look forward to it every time.”
New Mexico and El Paso feature contrasting styles. Under coach Mark Lowry, the quick-strike Locos were among the USL Championship leaders in chances created last season, but they ranked near the bottom in efficiency. United prefers a more controlled approach, emphasizing possession and quality over quantity in its shot attempts.
Both teams have managed to impose their wills at times, setting the stage for close contests and a number of dramatic finishes. Each team scored seven combined goals in last season’s series, which included four regular-season meetings and one in the postseason. Each team took one victory with the other three matches ending in draws.
“I guess it wouldn’t be the same if either team won every game,” Guzman said. “You kind of expect every match we play against El Paso to come right down to the end.”
That type of intensity suits Lesesne just fine. If nothing else, it figures to prevent NMU’s players from looking ahead to next week’s home opener against Austin Bold at Isotopes Park.
“We want to play games that matter,” he said, “and matches against El Paso always qualify.”
SPONSORSHIP ADDITION: United on Friday announced a sponsorship arrangement with the New Mexico Tourism Department. The team’s home and away jerseys will now feature “New Mexico True” on the front along with the name of Meow Wolf, another club sponsor. Financial details of the sponsorship were not immediately released.
“We could not think of a better, more New Mexican partner than the New Mexico Tourism Department, and we are beyond proud to represent them across our chests all season long,” United President/CEO Peter Trevisani said in a statement.
United announced the jersey sponsorship along with a 90-second video on YouTube entitled “New Mexico United is New Mexico True.”
NEW MEXICO UNITED (0-1-0) at EL PASO LOCOMOTIVE FC (0-0-0)
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN+ (streaming)
United and the City will once again host a watch party at Civic Plaza, with fans separated into pods of six. Pods went on sale online Tuesday with 20 more to be offered on a first-come, first-served basis. Admission is “whatever you want to donate to the (Somos Unidos) foundation.” Gates open at 5:30 p.m.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
United: He wasn’t in the starting lineup last week, but Jamaican-born forward Brian Brown is quickly establishing himself as highlight-reel material. Brown, who scored twice in New Mexico’s final preseason match, narrowly missed netting a potential tying goal late at Rio Grande Valley. His sizzling left-footer from just inside the box curled outside the left post. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis also made a strong debut for NMU with three impressive saves in a 1-0 defeat.
El Paso Locomotive: Saturday’s match is the season opener for El Paso, but there are plenty of familiar names on the Locos’ roster. Among them is standout goalkeeper Logan Ketterer, who posted eight clean sheets and 45 saves in 18 appearances last season. Midfielder Dylan Mares led El Paso in goals and assists and scored two goals last season against New Mexico. The team added a scoring threat in Luis Solignac, who had eight goals for San Antonio in 2020.
New Mexico could probably set its bus on auto-pilot for the bus ride to El Paso. Saturday’s match will be United’s seventh at Southwest University Park since last February, including a preseason meeting and a playoff contest in 2020. In matches that counted last season, El Paso and New Mexico were 1-1-3, each scoring a total of seven goals. However, the Locos got the last laugh, defeating NMU 5-3 in penalty kicks in a Western Conference semifinal.