United hosts big game, tries to protect playoff spot - Albuquerque Journal

United hosts big game, tries to protect playoff spot

Ilija Ilic, front, and the rest of New Mexico United face San Antonio in an important game Wednesday night at Isotopes Park. (Courtesy of USL)

Like it or not, late-season drama almost seems to suit New Mexico United.

A last-minute, point-salvaging goal Sunday in San Diego allowed United to scratch its way into playoff position, but only by a razor-thin margin. New Mexico has three regular-season matches remaining, including a key Wednesday home date with San Antonio FC.

While the final stretch may be nail-biting time for United fans, coach Troy Lesesne says his team thrives on having its collective back to the wall.

“It seems like we’ve been in a pressure-packed situation every week,” United coach Troy Lesesne said Tuesday, “but it’s only going to prepare us for the playoffs if we can secure a spot. Our guys have responded well to it and they love the spot we’re in. Now they want to put us in an even better spot and clinch a playoff spot.”

If the playoffs were to begin Wednesday, United would qualify as the No. 4 seed in the USL Championship’s Mountain Division. United (10-9-10, 40 points) is tied with Austin Bold (40 points) and narrowly ahead of Rio Grande Valley (38) points, but NMU holds a tiebreaker over Austin.

New Mexico and Austin finished 1-1-2 in four head-to-head meetings, which is the first playoff tiebreaker, but United scored four goals in those matches to Austin’s three. Goal differential in head-to-head matches is the second tiebreaker, so NMU will get the nod if the two squads end up tied.

But that is far from a done deal. United faces back-to-back stiff challenges against second-place San Antonio and at Rio Grande Valley on Saturday.

First up is SAFC (13-7-9), which is trying to secure second place and a home playoff match in round one. San Antonio (48 points) is tied with Colorado Springs for the second spot but has three matches remaining to the Switchbacks’ two.

United is 2-1-0 against San Antonio this season, winning the most recent meeting 1-0 in Texas on Sept. 25. Lesesne fully expects another tight battle in round four.

“(SAFC is) a really good opponent that’s virtually closed a playoff spot for themselves,” he said. “Now they’re trying to position themselves for a two or three seed, so they have a lot on the line as well.”

New Mexico has stayed in playoff contention with three straight draws, including Sunday’s stressful 1-1 result against San Diego Loyal. Ilija Ilic cashed in an equalizing goal in the final minute of second-half stoppage time to earn a key point for the visitors.

United also has gotten considerable help in its playoff push of late. Austin dropped a 4-3 decision to last-place Real Monarchs on Saturday, while RGV lost to division-leading El Paso. Austin plays Wednesday at El Paso.

As a result, New Mexico controls its own playoff hopes but can ill afford any stumbles coming down the season’s final stretch.

“It’s a great position to be in,” Lesesne said, “above the playoff line, but there’s a lot of work to do. Our group keeps pushing toward the ultimate goal, which is to qualify for the playoffs and have an opportunity to compete for a championship. All our focus is on San Antonio now.”

GAME DAY: SAN ANTONIO AT NEW MEXICO

Wednesday,7 p.m., Isotopes Park, 101.7 FM/ESPN+ (streaming)/Estrella TV (UHF 7.2)

PLAYERS TO WATCH

San Antonio (13-7-9): SAFC’s attack is certainly dangerous, ranking third in the USLC with 426 shots and fourth in chances created. Nathan Fogaca (10 goals), Justin Dhillon (7) and Marcus Epps (6) anchor a front line that can be especially lethal in counterattack situations. But San Antonio gets big contributions from its midfield (Cameron Lindley has 122 cross and 55 chances created) and back line. Defender Sam Gleadle, a former UNM men’s soccer standout, has been rock-solid in 20 appearances. Gleadle has 34 clearances and ranks among SAFC’s leaders with 41 tackles. He’s also won 68 of his 125 duels.

United (10-9-10): It’s been a fairly quiet season for striker Ilija Ilic, but he certainly made some noise at an opportune time for New Mexico. Ilic’s final-minute goal Sunday at San Diego earned United a 1-1 draw and an important point in the race for a playoff spot. Ilic’s only previous goal this season came in a July 9 win over Colorado Springs. He’s appeared in 19 matches with four starts but had not seen much recent action prior to Sunday, when he came on for a limping Amando Moreno in the 73rd minute and provided a nominee for USL Championship Goal of the Week on a perfectly placed cross from Chelo Martinez.

NOTEWORTHY

New Mexico (40 points) remains in a three-way battle with Austin Bold (40 points) and Rio Grande Valley (38 points) for the Mountain Division’s final playoff spot. Austin plays at first-place El Paso on Wednesday night. RGV is off until Saturday when it hosts United. … NMU’s 10 draws may seem like a lot, but it’s not the most in the USL Championship. OKC Energy FC has 13, followed by United, and four other sides with 10 apiece.

— Ken Sickenger


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