United expects defensive battle vs. 'really talented' Birmingham - Albuquerque Journal

United expects defensive battle vs. ‘really talented’ Birmingham

Birmingham Legion FC has excelled at doing a lot with a little.

New Mexico United’s opponent for Saturday’s USL Championship battle at Isotopes Park has scored the second-fewest goals (12) among league teams, shares the worst conversion rate (8%) on shot attempts and has scored more than one goal just once in its last six matches.

Despite all that, Birmingham (6-4-4) has won three straight, holds a playoff position and is coming off a win over Eastern Conference-leading Memphis.

“They’re really, really talented,” United coach Zach Prince said of Legion FC. “They don’t give up a lot of goals or a lot of chances. They’re a tough team to beat.”

The same descriptions could apply to New Mexico (7-2-4), which is riding a league-best five-game winning streak and is unbeaten in its last seven appearances. Like Birmingham, United has played outstanding defense and appears well-equipped to hold its own if Saturday’s match turns into a low-scoring affair.

NMU has allowed a USLC-low 10 goals, while Birmingham ranks third with 12 conceded. United has allowed more than one goal only once in league play; Legion FC has allowed multiple goals just twice.

New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis and Birmingham counterpart Matt Van Oekel have posted strong numbers, particularly of late. But United defender Sam Hamilton takes pride in keeping undue pressure off of Tambakis.

“I see that goals-against number being the best in the league as a team achievement,” Hamilton said. “It’s the way we defend as a group. We don’t give teams a lot of good looks or let them have consistent pressure against us.”

Solid as his team’s defense has been, Prince would just as soon force Legion FC out of its comfort zone with an early goal or two. Birmingham has played six matches with 0-0 or 1-0 results, going 2-2-2. United’s only two losses were by 1-0 counts.

“We’ve got to start well,” Prince said, “try to get them unbalanced and create as many opportunities as we can.”

Both teams are well-rested, perhaps even more so than they might prefer. United has played just twice in June and had a scheduled Wednesday home match against Rio Grande Valley postponed because overabundant rain prevented effective installation of infield sod at Isotopes Park.

Birmingham has not played since June 8, a scheduled break that could amount to a preparation edge. Legion FC has had plenty of time to prep for Saturday while United was focused on Rio Grande Valley until Tuesday.

Prince downplayed the importance of extra preparation time.

“We want to be unpredictable anyway and throw different looks at people,” he said. “We want to be flexible and adaptable once we see how a team is attacking and defending us. I have a lot of faith in our team and these players’ ability to switch things up a little as needed.”

Case in point was NMU’s most recent outing, a 2-1 win at Oakland on June 15. Prince brought Cristian Nava off the bench in the second half with United trailing 1-0 and moved Sergio Rivas from midfield to forward. Both picked up assists on back-to-back United goals in a decisive 10-minute span.

NMU has won four straight road matches since its last appearance at Isotopes Park on May 7. Nava smiled when asked about the long-awaited homecoming.

“I’m excited to be back at the Lab with all our fans,” he said. “We’ve done a good job with travel and everything on the road, but being home is a different feeling. We’re looking forward to it.”

GAME DAY: BIRMINGHAM LEGION FC at NEW MEXICO UNITED

Saturday, 7 p.m., Isotopes Park, espn+ (streaming), 101.7 FM, Estrella TV

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Birmingham (6-4-4): Forward Prosper Kasim paces the attack for Legion FC, which comes to Albuquerque on a three-match winning streak. Kasim has a team-best four goals on 24 shots with 26 chances created. The latter total is second to midfielder Enzo Martinez’s 30. Birmingham ranks fifth in the USLC with 199 shots but second to last in goals scored (12) and tied for last in conversion rate (8%). Legion FC wins with defense, and goalkeeper Matt Van Oekel anchors a stout back line. Van Oekel has 36 saves, five clean sheets and has allowed just six goals in Birmingham’s last 11 matches.

Chris Wehan, New Mexico United

New Mexico (7-2-4): Forward Neco Brett, who played for Birmingham in 2020 and ’21, continues to be a focal point of United’s attack, leading the club with five goals and 26 shots. But Brett has received considerable help during NMU’s five-match winning streak, particularly from resurgent midfielder Chris Wehan. After failing to find the net in United’s first eight USLC matches, Wehan has scored four goals during the club’s streak. NMU’s career scoring leader also ranks second this season in shots (20) and has 12 chances created. Justin Portillo leads the latter category and ranks second in the league with 38,

NOTEWORTHY: Saturday’s match will be United’s first at Isotopes Park since May 7 and more than 10,000 tickets had been sold by Thursday. It will be the club’s annual Pride on the Pitch match with complimentary flags given to the first 3,000 fans. … Midfielder Sergio Rivas and defender Rashid Tetteh were named to the USLC’s Team of the Week after strong performances in NMU’s 2-1 win over Oakland Roots SC. … Forward Jerome Kiesewetter will serve a one-game suspension Saturday after receiving a red card versus Oakland.

— Ken Sickenger

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