Getting off to a fast start in Indianapolis seems like solid advice this weekend.
New Mexico United will do its best to pay heed.
One day before the annual Indy 500 is contested, United will make its first appearance in Indianapolis, taking on Indy Eleven in a 2 p.m. matinee at Michael A. Carroll Stadium.
It’s a new track and a new opponent for United (4-2-4), but the visitors can’t expect to pull any sort of fast ones on Indy Eleven (5-3-2). The host team is coached by Mark Lowry, who spent the previous four seasons coaching El Paso Locomotive FC.
Lowry knows New Mexico United well, and the reverse is also true.
“We know Indy’s staff very well,” NMU coach Zach Prince said. “The players are different but I think there’s a lot of familiarity in terms of style. It’ll be a good challenge, and we’re excited for it.”
Both teams are coming in on a bit of a roll.
Indy Eleven got off to a slow start (0-2-2), but has since won five of six to climb into playoff position in the USL Championship’s Eastern Conference. Indy has been especially good at home (4-0-1) and has allowed just three goals to visiting teams.
United (4-2-4) also has shifted gears since dropping back-to-back 1-0 decisions in mid-April. New Mexico has since posted two draws and consecutive wins to climb over the Western Conference playoff line.
NMU set a franchise record for goals Tuesday night with a 7-0 win over COVID-depleted Phoenix Rising FC at the University of New Mexico soccer complex.
Improved health has played a role in United’s recent surge. Such key players as goalkeeper Alex Tambakis, defender Kalen Ryden and midfielder/forward Sergio Rivas have returned to action after missing time with injuries.
United also added a weapon Tuesday when veteran striker Devon Sandoval made his first appearance of the season off the bench. Sandoval had been out since late last season because of blood clots found in his aortic artery.
“That guy is a competitor and I’m really, really happy for him to be back on the side,” Prince said of Sandoval’s 20-minute appearance against Phoenix. “I thought he had a really solid 15 minutes. He did seem a little fatigued, but he’s going to get that game speed back quickly. You could see some of the ideas and hold-up play he had. Excellent.”
United’s attack also has gotten a needed jump-start from forward Chris Wehan, who has scored goals in two straight matches after failing to find the net in eight appearances to start the season.
The scoring breakthrough is welcome for Prince after United had been forced to rely on its defense for points. New Mexico’s back line has been especially stingy of late, allowing just one goal in its last four matches. For the season, NMU is tied with San Antonio FC for the fewest goals allowed (seven) in the USL Championship.
Tambakis continues to climb the USLC’s career lists for goal-keeping achievements. After Tuesday’s win, he ranks second in league history with 415 saves and sixth overall with 36 clean sheets.
DOUBLE DUTY: New Mexico United’s U-23 squad will play its second match Saturday at 7 p.m. in Roswell against Flatiron Rush. Competing in USL League Two, NMU’s U-23 entry played to a 2-2 draw with Colorado International Soccer Academy in its first-ever match Thursday at Mesa del Sol.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
New Mexico (4-2-4): United’s attack roared to life in Tuesday’s 7-0 win over depleted Phoenix Rising FC, but stout defense has been the club’s calling card this season. Goalkeeper
Alex Tambakis has posted back-to-back shutouts since returning from injury and his four clean sheets rank fifth in the USLC — despite his missing three league matches. Defender Kalen Ryden’s return from injury has bolstered a unit that is tied for the fewest goals allowed (7) in the league. New Mexico’s attack will likely be bolstered by the return of Neco Brett from a stint with Jamaica’s national team.
Indy (5-3-2): Saturday’s match will be United’s first against Indy Eleven but there are quite a few familiar faces on the home team’s roster. Goalkeeper Elliot Panicco posted a solid year for Austin Bold last season and has played well for Indy on loan from MLS Nashville SC. Panicco ranks eighth in the USLC with 25 saves and has a pair of clean sheets. Indy Eleven recently added former two-time USLC MVP Solomon Asante, who scored 54 goals in four seasons with Phoenix Rising FC. Asante made his first appearance as a substitute last week against New York Red Bulls II.
NOTEWORTHY: Midfielder Justin Portillo picked up his first two United goals Tuesday against Phoenix (both on penalty kicks), but he continues to be a key cog in NMU’s attack. Portillo shares the team lead with three assists (Daniel Bruce also has three) and he continues to lead the USLC in chances created with 33. No one else has reached 30. Nicky Law leads Indy Eleven with 14 chances created.