United welcomes league's Open Cup darling Sacramento for showdown - Albuquerque Journal

United welcomes league’s Open Cup darling Sacramento for showdown

New Mexico United’s Justin Portillo, front, dribbles in action Sunday, July 31, 2022 against the host New York Red Bulls II. (Courtesy of United Soccer League)

Sacramento Republic FC has been the toast of the USL Championship for the past week and rightfully so.

The club has focused positive national attention on the league, knocking off three straight MLS opponents on its way to a date in the U.S. Open Cup Final. Sacramento will take on Orlando City SC on Sept. 7, becoming the first lower-division club to make the final since 2008.

Republic edged Sporting Kansas City in a penalty kick shootout last Wednesday to secure its spot in the title match.

Credit where it’s due, says New Mexico United coach Zach Prince, whose club hosts Republic FC on Wednesday.

“Congratulations to Sacramento for getting to the Open Cup Final,” Prince said. “That’s something all USL Championship clubs hope to achieve, and the tournament format makes it possible. Sacramento’s done a great job taking advantage of that and has performed incredibly well.”

With that said, Prince and his team would like nothing better than to steal a little of Sacramento’s thunder in Wednesday’s USLC Western Conference battle. United (10-3-8) stands in fourth place while Republic FC (9-5-6) is tied for fifth. The teams played to a 0-0 draw in their first meeting this season, so Wednesday’s result could loom large in the race for playoff positioning.

“It is a big match and we’ve got a tough opponent to face,” Prince said. “We’re excited about it.”

Both teams earned wins in the Eastern time zone over the weekend, Sacramento winning 4-2 at Charleston on Saturday and United taking a 2-1 win over New York Red Bulls II on Sunday. Both teams also play again Saturday, meaning depth could be a significant factor Wednesday night.

Only two players, playmakers Justin Portillo and Daniel Bruce, have appeared in every match for United this season. Portillo leads NMU with 46 chances created, while Bruce ranks second with 24.

Prince has made a point to rotate players in an effort to keep fresh legs on the field. Midfielder Chris Wehan, for example, did not play against New York.

But Prince also has numerous options available these days. Recent signee Romario Williams made his United debut on Sunday, and Amando Moreno returned after rehabbing from ACL surgery.

“Romario and Amando earned their way onto the field,” Prince said.

Jerome Kiesewetter also has become a key part of New Mexico’s attack in recent weeks, collecting two goals and two assists over the last six matches after playing infrequently early in the season.

Prince admits that his team’s depth makes selecting lineups difficult, but it also allows him to keep second-time opponents like Sacramento guessing.

“It’s not easy to pick any position on the team right now,” Prince said. “Guys are really challenging each other in training for spots, both starting and on the (active roster). It makes for some tough decisions, but sometimes it works to your advantage having this kind of depth, especially during busy weeks like this.”

BALANCE OF POWER: United completed July without a loss, going 3-0-4 and climbing to seventh in the USLC’s weekly power rankings. Sacramento was 1-2-2 in league play in July but went 4-0-0 in June and stands eighth in this week’s power rankings.

NMU (38 points) could move into third place in the Western Conference with a win Wednesday as Colorado Springs (40 points) is idle. Sacramento (33 points) could tighten the race for fourth place with a win. Republic FC has played one fewer match than has New Mexico.

 

GAME DAY: SACRAMENTO REPUBLIC FC at NEW MEXICO UNITED

Wednesday, 7 p.m., Isotopes Park, espn+, 101.7 FM, Estrella TV

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sacramento (9-5-6): Republic FC shares the wealth on the attacking end as forward Maalique Foster leads the club with four goals. Midfielder Rodrigo Lopez is the top playmaker with 38 chances created, 23 shots, three goals and three assists. Lopez undoubtedly would like to forget Sacramento’s first battle with NMU this season as he missed high on a late penalty kick in what would end up as a 0-0 draw. Goalkeeper Daniel Vitiello had a strong outing against United and has 35 saves and 16 goals allowed in 14 appearances for Republic FC. Midfielder Emil Cuello and forward Luther Archimede scored in Saturday’s 4-2 win over Charleston and were named to the USLC Team of the Week.

New Mexico (10-3-8): Will Seymore waited a long time to remove the zero from his “goals scored” stat line. The 30-year-old midfielder netted the decisive tally in United’s 2-1 win at New York Red Bulls II on Sunday, his first in 107 USL Championship appearances. Fittingly, it came on a header as most of Seymore’s 13 shots this season have come on set pieces or crosses in front of the goal. Other statistics speak more to Seymore’s contributions. He leads United in passes (1,091), interceptions (36), aerial duels (71), clearances (68 — tied with Kalen Ryden) and ranks second in starts (19) and minutes played (1,738). Justin Portillo leads the club with 20 starts and 1,785 minutes played.

NOTEWORTHY: Sacramento leads the head-to-head series with United 2-1-1 with a pair of victories that left a sour taste with New Mexico fans. Republic FC handed NMU a 3-0 home loss in 2019, its most one-sided defeat at Isotopes Park to date, and later ended United’s debut season with a 2-1 playoff decision in Sacramento. … NMU goalkeeper Alex Tambakis missed the May 4 match at Sacramento with an injury. Ford Parker posted a clean sheet in the 0-0 draw.

(Click here for updated United Soccer League Championship division standings.)

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