United hosts rival El Paso and needs a victory - Albuquerque Journal

United hosts rival El Paso and needs a victory

United defender Kalen Ryden, right, shown in a loss to Birmingham earlier this season, hopes for a different result on Friday at home vs. El Paso. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

Motivation should not be a problem for New Mexico United on Friday night.

First and foremost, United needs a win in what will be its only home appearance of September. A recent downturn of fortunes (1-3-1 in its last five matches) has dropped New Mexico from third place to fifth in the USL Championship Western Conference standings with seven matches to play. The top four finishers play postseason openers at home.

But that’s not the only motivating factor.

El Paso Locomotive FC, United’s arch rival, is making its only appearance of the season at Isotopes Park. The Locos, who dropped a 2-1 decision to NMU way back on March 19, are tied for sixth place (seven qualify for the playoffs) but they have just six matches remaining. El Paso needs every point it can get.

New Mexico defender Kalen Ryden said his teammates are well aware of Friday’s stakes.

“Toward the end of the season, every game is crucial,” Ryden said, “and El Paso’s our rival so this one means even more. We have to go out and attack this game.”

If history is any indication, Friday’s matchup will be close and physical. The two clubs have met 12 times in regular- and postseason contests since entering the league together in 2019. United has three wins, El Paso has two, and seven meetings have ended in a draw.

Nine of the previous 12 matchups were played at El Paso’s Southwest University Park.

“We’re excited to face this opponent in front of our crowd,” United coach Zach Prince said. “God knows we’ve played El Paso enough, but we haven’t played them enough at home. We want to get a win and be able to celebrate it with our fans.”

Atmosphere aside, Friday’s assignment is similar to the one New Mexico faced last week at Colorado Springs. Like the Switchbacks, Locomotive FC ranks among the league leaders both in goals scored (47) and goals allowed (39).

New Mexico did an effective job limiting Colorado Springs’ explosive lineup, but was unable to put a shot in the net in a 1-0 loss to the Switchbacks.

“We played excellent defense the whole night, really,” Prince said, “but the game ended up as points dropped and we’re not happy with that. El Paso plays a similar system (to Colorado Springs), but they have different personnel and they value the ball a lot more. They like to have a ton of possession.”

El Paso leads the league by a wide margin in total passes (13,858) and is tied for first in passing accuracy (84%). New Mexico, by comparison, ranks 16th with 10,997 passes and 17th with a 77% accuracy rate.

But the Locos have been susceptible to counterattacks, and Prince hopes his team can cash in on its opportunities. United has been shut out three times in its last five games and needs to start building momentum if it hopes to make a postseason run.

“It’s hard to win games in this league,” NMU defender Alexis Souahy said, “especially late in the season. Our focus has to be at a high level.”

GETTING HEALTHIER: United has been without several key players because of injuries recently but the club is getting closer to full health, Prince said. Midfielder Sergio Rivas returned to action as a second-half substitute at Colorado Springs after missing numerous matches. Defender Josh Suggs returned to full training this week, and forwards Neco Brett and Jerome Kiesewetter could be available as soon as Friday. Midfielder Cristian Nava, who suffered a leg injury Aug. 20 against Monterey Bay, will likely miss another week, Prince said.

GAME DAY: El PASO LOCOMOTIVE at NM UNITED

Friday, 7 p.m.,

espn+, 101.7 FM, Estrella TV

PLAYERS TO WATCH

El Paso (10-11-7): A number of Locomotive FC players are quite familiar to New Mexico fans, including midfielder Dylan Mares, who is having another strong season. Mares has

Dylan Mares, El Paso Locomotive

nine goals, five assists, and leads El Paso with 50 shots and 42 chances created. He has been a particular thorn in United’s side with five goals scored against NMU. Forward Luis Solignac leads the Locos’ attack with 11 goals, while forward Aaron Gomez has six goals and seven assists. Midfielder Yuma Monsalvez — typically a designated villain for United fans — leads El Paso in passes (1,524), clearances (74), interceptions (33) and yellow cards (nine). Goalkeeper Evan Newton has played every minute this season.

New Mexico (11-7-9): With the exception of an explosive minute (two goals) against Monterey Bay, United’s attack has sputtered recently. NMU has been shut out three times during a 1-3-1 stretch and needs to find some scoring punch as the regular season winds down. Top scorer Neco Brett (seven goals) and striker Jerome Kiesewetter have missed several matches with lower body injuries and are close to returning, which figures to help. Playmakers Justin Portillo and Chris Wehan (six goals apiece) have been targeted by opposing defenses, limiting their opportunities. Dynamic front-line players Amando Moreno and Kevaughn Frater have looked good at times but have yet to break through.

NOTEWORTHY: After Friday’s match, United will play three straight on the road (at Rio Grande Valley, San Antonio, Las Vegas) before returning home Oct. 5 against LA Galaxy II. … NMU defender Alexis Souahy could make his 100th USL Championship appearance if he plays Friday. Midfielder Sam Hamilton has 98 appearances. … The USLC announced this week that Jacksonville, Florida, will receive an expansion franchise to begin play in 2025. The ownership group includes former NFL star and Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Tim Tebow.

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