With 10 matches remaining in New Mexico United’s regular season, math questions start coming to mind.
How many wins/points will United need to climb into playoff position?
Does New Mexico need to run the table in its six remaining home matches?
Can a club that has scored 27 goals and allowed 27 create a balance positive enough to make a serious run?
United starts the season’s home stretch Saturday against Real Monarchs SLC at Isotopes Park in what certainly qualifies as a must-win affair. NMU (7-8-7, 28 points) is in sixth place in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division and must overtake at least two clubs to secure one of its four playoff spots. (Click here for updated standings.)
The task is not unrealistic. Fourth-place Austin (32 points) and fifth-place Rio Grande Valley (31) are certainly within United’s reach.
New Mexico’s players know they cannot afford to miss many more opportunities, particularly at home against last-place Real Monarchs (4-15-4, 16 points). Still, midfielder Daniel Bruce prefers to keep the math as simple as possible.
“Obviously it’s important to string wins together,” Bruce said Friday, “but it has to start with the next game. The most important game of our season is this game. That’s all we can afford to think about right now.”
New Mexico complicated its playoff chances with a sluggish performance last time out. United’s attack did not generate a shot in the first half of a 1-0 loss at Austin on Sept. 10, and coach Troy Lesesne does not want to see a repeat performance.
“It wasn’t good enough, especially the first half,” Lesesne said. “We have to perform like we did the previous match (a 3-2 home win) against Colorado Springs. It has to be that way the rest of the year.”
NMU will be the fresher team Saturday, coming off an eight-day break between matches. Real Monarchs played at Hartford on Wednesday night, dropping a 2-0 decision for their fifth consecutive loss.
The Monarchs’ affiliation with MLS Real Salt Lake typically creates considerable lineup fluctuation, but Lesesne said he has not seen as much turnover of late.
“They used a little different group against Hartford,” Lesesne said, “not as many first-team guys as when we saw them earlier in the season. They’re giving some younger guys opportunities. We need to take advantage of that and get three points.”
New Mexico will see Real Monarchs one more time in 2021 – the season’s final match on Oct. 30 at Isotopes Park. By that time, Bruce hopes United will be facing a simple postseason equation.
“Of course there’s pressure to finish the season well,” Bruce said, “and that’s fine. That’s good. But focusing too much on the big picture doesn’t help us right now. We need to win this match, move on to the next one and see where we are 10 games from now.”
DELAYED RETURN: United’s lineup will get a boost Saturday as midfielder Saalih Muhammad will be available for the first time since rejoining the club in late August. Muhammad has been out with a lower body injury.
“I finally had a good week of training and got my legs under me,” Muhammad said. “It’s exciting to be back. Now I can focus on the mission and that’s making it to the playoffs.”
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., 101.7 FM/ESPN+ (streaming)/Estrella TV (7.2 on UHG)
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Real Monarchs (4-15-4): It’s been a rough go for the Monarchs and mostly downhill since a 3-2 home win over New Mexico on June 30. The club has gone 2-10-0 over that span and
has been shut out six times. Coach Jamison Olave has turned to a younger lineup of late, one that includes 22-year-old Charlie Wehan, the younger brother of NMU’s Chris Wehan. Charlie has posted two goals, an assist and created 10 chances since joining the club in June. Milan Iloski, also 22, leads Real Monarchs with four goals, three assists and 38 shots.
United (7-8-7): Coach Troy Lesesne has tried numerous player combinations in an effort to jump-start his team’s sputtering attack. Consistency has been hard to come by, but Chelo Martinez and Chris Wehan have created the most opportunities. Martinez has a team-best 32 chances created despite having made just nine starts. Wehan ranks second with 31 chances created, with the numbers split between NMU and his former side, Orange County SC. Andrew Tinari is third with 24 and leads United with five assists.
Real Monarchs are tied for last in the USL Championship with 20 goals and rank 25th in shots with 245. That’s one shot better than United, which has 244 and ranks 26th. … Home cooking has generally agreed with NMU, which is 5-1-4 at Isotopes Park in 2021. New Mexico is just 2-7-3 on the road, with wins
over Colorado Springs and Real Monarchs.