New Mexico United’s playoff door has not slammed shut just yet.
Coming off last week’s home draw with Rio Grande Valley, United (10-9-9, 39 points) was not in a promising position, tied with Austin Bold for fourth place in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division, but with two fewer matches remaining. (Click here for updated USL Championship standings.)
Four teams from each division qualify for postseason.
But New Mexico picked up a little outside help during an eight-day break between matches. Austin went 0-2-1 against Oklahoma City, Birmingham and suffered a 4-3 loss Saturday to last place Real Monarchs SLC, meaning it holds just a one-point lead over United with one fewer match remaining.
Austin (40 points through 29 games), New Mexico (39 points through 28 games) and Rio Grande Valley (38 points before playing its 29th game late Saturday) face a final sprint.
New Mexico visits San Diego Loyal SC (14-10-4) on Sunday afternoon.
“Four matches left and they’re all important,” United coach Troy Lesesne said. “San Diego is a tough team with a lot of experienced talent, but I like where our guys are now. We’ve enjoyed having a full week of training to kind of getting back into a rhythm. We’re recovered and ready for these last four matches.”
The recent break came at a good time for United, which had played five matches in a 15-day stretch concluding with last Saturday’s 1-1 draw with Rio Grande Valley. The hectic span included road trips to San Antonio and Louisville along with three home appearances.
New Mexico’s final stretch begins in sunny San Diego, but Lesesne knows it won’t include a relaxing Sunday on the beach. Loyal has motivation of its own. Going into Saturday night, San Diego needed one point to clinch a playoff spot and stood in second place in the Pacific Division.
“They’ve been in pretty good form for the last two or three months really,” Lesesne said. “San Diego is not a team that’s going to sit back and waste time. They have a lot of attacking power.”
Loyal ranks 10th in the USL Championship with 46 goals scored, 10 more than NMU, and has seven players with three or more goals. Tumi Moshobane leads the way with 10.
Paced by goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, United has conceded just 26 goals, two fewer than San Diego, but NMU’s attack has been inconsistent. It generated 26 shots in a Sept. 18 win over Real Monarchs but was limited to six (two on goal) last week against RGV.
Still, United has reasons for optimism going into the final two weeks of regular-season play. It will get forward Amando Moreno back Sunday after his latest stint with El Salvador’s national team.
Throw in a week’s recovery time and Lesesne believes NMU is quite capable of a strong final charge.
“There’s not any gloom and doom because our last two matches were draws,” he said. “There’s still time left in the regular season, and we’re staying positive and optimistic. This group has made the playoffs two years in a row, and we want to make it three.”
GAME DAY: NEW MEXICO UNITED at SAN DIEGO LOYAL SC
Sunday, 4 p.m., ESPN+ (streaming)/no radio
United (10-9-9): New Mexico will look to reignite its attack after managing just two shots on goal in last week’s 1-1 draw with Rio Grande Valley. United figures to get a boost from the return of forward Amando Moreno, who missed the last two matches while representing El Salvador in World Cup qualifying. Moreno has five goals on 28 shots with 15 chances created in 18 appearances. Chris Wehan, who joined the club in August, leads NMU with six goals (10 overall this season) and has 42 chances created. Defender Rashid Tetteh has excelled in recent matches and has won 69 of 100 duels in his 17 appearances.
San Diego (14-10-4): Loyal SC bears some similarities to New Mexico in that it tends to control possession and build from the defensive third. San Diego ranks third in the USL Championship in passes (14,084) while United is fifth (13,045). Also like New Mexico, Loyal has gotten numerous players involved in scoring. Forward Tumi Moshobane has a team-best 10 goals, but midfielders Jack Blake and Charlie Adams have been catalysts. Blake has five goals, four assists and a team-leading 44 shots, while Adams leads the club with 43 chances created. Alejandro Guido posted a goal and an assist in SDLSC’s recent 2-1 win over Sacramento.
Loyal SC has played well at home (9-4-1) and has not lost at Torero Stadium since Aug. 21. SDLSC ranks 14th in the league in home attendance at 3,900 per game. … San Diego’s franchise was co-founded by longtime U.S. national team and MLS star Landon Donovan. He is currently the club’s head coach and vice president of strategic operations. … Sunday’s match is New Mexico’s last against a non-Mountain Division foe this season. United is 1-3-3 against non-division opponents.