Two teams with much in common and a lot at stake will square off Wednesday night at Isotopes Park.
New Mexico United will host Rio Grande Valley FC for a 7 p.m. contest with three significant points up for grabs in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division race. If either team claims all three, it will climb into playoff position as the regular season moves into its final month.
United (9-8-7) and RGVFC (9-9-7) come in tied for fifth place with 34 points apiece. They are just two points behind Austin Bold FC, which is idle this week, meaning Wednesday’s winner (provided there is one) can take over the division’s fourth playoff spot.
It’s a particularly big opportunity for New Mexico, which has played one match fewer than has Rio Grande Valley or Austin. With a win, United could control its own path to the playoffs. NMU will have seven matches remaining after Wednesday’s contest.
It represents a positive turn for United, which has won two straight matches, three of its last four and is coming off a key 1-0 road win over San Antonio FC. That said, coach Troy Lesesne stopped short of saying his club is riding a wave of momentum.
“We feel good about the last two results but we need to keep pushing,” Lesesne said. “I think we need to string more good performances together before we start talking about momentum, and Rio Grande Valley is a really difficult opponent.”
Lesesne sees a number of parallels between United and the Toros, who have more in common than point totals. Both clubs have played a ridiculous number of tight, low-scoring matches and both have endured eight-match winless streaks this season.
New Mexico has allowed one goal or fewer 18 times in 24 matches this season, but United has scored one or fewer 15 times. It’s worse for RGVFC, which has allowed one goal or fewer 14 times but scored one or been shut out 18 times.
“They have been in a similar position to us quite a bit this season,” Lesesne said of the Toros, “with some things not going their way or giving up late goals. But they’re a tough team to break down defensively and they have some dangerous pieces up front. We know we’re in for a battle.”
United has recently started to regain some swagger after breaking up a frustrating eight-match winless streak that pushed it into sixth place in the seven-team division. Rio Grande Valley led the division for much of the season’s first two months but has struggled of late. Prior to Saturday’s 3-2 win over Atlanta United 2, the Toros had gone 0-5-3 in their previous eight matches, scoring just nine goals during the slide.
Wednesday’s meeting could be something of a tone-setter for the two clubs, who will meet two more times during the season’s final month. Rio Grande Valley took a 1-0 home victory over New Mexico in the season opener for both teams on May 1.
NOTE: United is offering reduced tickets, based on the dates, for its two upcoming home matches. Tickets in three sections will be available for $9.29 for Wednesday’s match against Rio Grande Valley. The same seats will sell for $10.06 for next week’s match against Hartford Athletic.
GAME DAY: RIO GRANDE VALLEY AT NM UNITED
Wednesday, 7 p.m., 101.7 FM/ESPN+ (streaming)/Estrella TV
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Rio Grande Valley (9-9-7): Forward Elvis Amoh has been the top goal producer for the Toros with nine this season, including the only score in RGVFC’s 1-0 home win over New Mexico on May 1. Amoh also leads the club with 29 shots, but midfielder Rodrigo Lopez is a focal point of the attack. Lopez has two goals, five assists, 26 shots and a team-best 47 chances created. Rio Grande Valley has played a slew of low-scoring matches this season and goalkeeper Tyler Deric has anchored an effective back line. Deric has 43 saves and four clean sheets in 21 appearances.
United (9-8-7): Chris Wehan has been the story of late, cashing in four goals in seven matches since his return to NMU — including back-to-back game-winners against Real Monarchs
and San Antonio FC. At the same time, Amando Moreno has quietly been in dangerous form. Moreno netted the USL Championship’s Goal of the Week against Real Monarchs on Sept. 18, then set up Wehan’s tally in Saturday’s 1-0 win at San Antonio. Appearing in 16 NMU matches this season while also competing for El Salvador’s national team, Moreno has four goals and 14 chances created.
United and RGVFC have not met since the season opener, but the Mountain Division rivals will now square off three times in a 25-day span. … New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis has 61 saves this season and now ranks among the USL Championship’s top five for career saves with 379. Tambakis played for Charleston Battery and North Carolina FC prior to joining United this season.