New Mexico United does have nine regular-season matches remaining, but Saturday’s trip to San Antonio rates among the biggest.
Trying to climb into playoff position in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division, United (8-8-7, 31 points) has already completed its schedule against three of the four teams it is chasing. The exception is San Antonio FC (11-6-7, 40 points), which NMU faces twice during the season’s final stretch.
The first of those matchups comes Saturday night at Toyota Field, where SAFC handed United a 3-0 defeat in what proved to be a pivotal match on July 21. That win started San Antonio on a 9-3-1 surge that has it tied for second place in the Mountain Division. New Mexico went 2-3-5 over the same stretch and is tied for fifth position.
United took a 2-0 win over SAFC in the teams’ first meeting in Albuquerque this season, and coach Troy Lesesne knows his club needs a similar performance.
“There’s urgency on our end,” Lesesne said during a Zoom media conference Friday. “We don’t want to let a chance slip away against a team that’s ahead of us. With nine games left, this is a big one for us.”
New Mexico is five points behind fourth-place Austin Bold FC for the division’s final playoff spot and must overcome a pair of unfavorable trends to gain ground Saturday. San Antonio is riding a three-match winning streak, and United has struggled (2-7-3) on the road.
On a more positive note, NMU has won two of its past three matches and seems to be settling in after making several roster moves in August. Midfielder David Najem and midfielder/forward Chris Wehan have been difference-makers on the attack, and midfielder Saalih Muhammad played well in his first appearance, last week’s 2-1 win over Real Monarchs SLC.
Also, midfielder Sergio Rivas, who missed two matches with what Lesesne called a minor injury, returned to training this week and will be available against SAFC, the coach said.
Lesesne has mixed and matched players throughout the season based on matchups and availability. Facing a crucial stretch of five matches in 15 days, Lesesne hopes United’s depth will pay dividends.
“We’ve got to get contributions from everyone now,” he said. “You want to find the right mix of players against each opponent, and I think the number of guys we’ve had starting matches and playing key minutes will benefit us down the stretch.”
New Mexico is coming off an aggressive performance that featured a season-best 26 shots (nine on target) against Real Monarchs. NMU does not figure to approach those totals against San Antonio, which ranks among the league leaders in shots. Still, United put just one shot on target in its July loss to SAFC and must put more pressure on talented goalkeeper Matt Cardone if it plans to change the outcome this time around.
San Antonio also features an opportunistic attack led by Brazilian Nathan Fogaca, who scored twice during United’s most recent visit.
“Their front three are very dangerous,” Lesesne said, “and I think they’ve fine-tuned what they do since the last time we saw them. This is a tough match for us, but we’re excited about it. We need to keep our momentum going.”
San Antonio FC (11-6-7): The man with a single name, Nathan, was double trouble the last time SAFC hosted New Mexico, scoring two goals in his team’s 3-0 win. Also known as Nathan Fogaca, he’s the team leader in goals (8) and shots (48) and part of a dynamic front line with Marcus Epps and Jose Gallegos. Santiago Patiño has five goals but has appeared in just eight matches and missed last week’s contest versus Sacramento. Goalkeeper Matt Cardone ranks third in the league with 76 saves and has five clean sheets, one of them against United.
San Antonio is not bashful about launching shots, ranking third in the USL Championship with 343 (73 more than United). But SAFC’s approach is not necessarily about patience or finesse. It ranks last in passes and passing accuracy, first in fouls conceded with 374 (United is 18th with 311) and second in yellow cards received with 67 (United is 18th with 52).