Toyota Field in San Antonio, Texas, has not exactly been a house of horrors for New Mexico United.
Yes, NMU got clobbered there (3-0) on national television once last season, but there have been some moments to remember, too. United pulled out a 1-0 win in its other visit to Toyota Field last season, and the club’s lone USL Championship playoff victory was secured there in 2020.
Perhaps that’s part of the reason United coach Zach Prince and his players are looking forward to Saturday’s road match against Western Conference-leading San Antonio FC. Based on recent results, it doesn’t seem likely to be a pleasant walk through the grass.
San Antonio (20-5-3) has been the conference’s top dog nearly all season and has already clinched a playoff spot. SAFC is coming off a 1-0 win over second-place San Diego and is closing in on a regular-season title and a first-round bye.
New Mexico on the other hand, is trying desperately to regain its midseason form and improve its playoff positioning with five matches left in the regular season. United (11-9-9) stands in fifth place, but its spot above the playoff line has become precarious during the club’s recent 1-6-1 funk.
United coach Zach Prince and his players were far from satisfied after last week’s 3-1 loss at Rio Grande Valley, a match in which they were thoroughly outplayed after taking a 1-0 lead on Amando Moreno’s eighth-minute goal.
“We’re not satisfied with where we’re at these last few games,” Prince said, “especially the way we played at Rio Grande Valley. … We’ve challenged ourselves this week. Yes, we’ve created a lot of chances in these last few games, but we’re tired of saying that. We need results.”
Prince and his players are well aware that goals and points have been hard to come by against San Antonio this season. SAFC is 9-1-3 at home and overall has allowed a league-low 22 goals.
Still, United went toe-to-toe against San Antonio earlier this season at Isotopes Park, ultimately losing 1-0 on a penalty kick by Justin Dhillon in the 67th minute.
“As a group, we’re pretty excited about this game,” midfielder Sam Hamilton said. “Regardless of the opponent, we’re optimistic. There are five games left in the season and this is the time to tighten our focus.”
It’s a different sort of challenge for United as San Antonio’s attack is unusual among Western Conference clubs. SAFC ranks eighth in the league in goals scored (46), but last by a wide margin in passes.
“They’re a very direct team, big in size, and they like to just serve the ball in and attack,” NMU midfielder Justin Portillo said. “We’ve got to stay behind them defensively and capitalize when we have opportunities.”
United may get a boost as some of its injured players (forward Jerome Kiesewetter, midfielder Josh Suggs and defender Austin Yearwood) had full weeks of training, Prince said.
ACADEMY CLINCHER: New Mexico United’s academy team locked up a division championship and a spot in the USL Academy Playoffs with a 5-1 win over San Diego at Mesa del Sol on Friday.
Former Santa Fe High standout Alex Waggoner netted two goals in his first NMU appearance. Denilson Velasquez, Miles Merritt and Ivan Moore also scored for New Mexico (11-1-1), which avenged its only loss, a 1-0 defeat to San Diego earlier this season.
By clinching the Southwest Division, United earns one of 12 automatic berths for the 16-team championship tournament, set for mid-November in Tampa, Florida. New Mexico qualified as a wild card last season and finished third.
“I’m really proud of these boys,” NMU academy coach Luke Sanford said. “They’re the best team in the division because they worked so hard in training every day. Our goal was to get into the playoffs and we’ve done that, so now the goal is to go out and win it. Getting to represent our state outside this environment against the best teams in the country is a big deal.”
NEW MEXICO UNITED at SAN ANTONIO FC
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., espn+ (streaming), 101.7 FM
PLAYERS TO WATCH
New Mexico (11-9-9): United’s struggling attack (four goals scored in its last five matches) will face a daunting challenge against the USL Championship’s top defense in San Antonio. New Mexico has been unable to find a consistent finisher, particularly since forward Neco Brett has been out with an injury. The best hope for a breakthrough Saturday may rest with Chris Wehan, who has enjoyed some notable success at Toyota Field. Wehan netted the only goal in NMU’s 1-0 win at SAFC last season and his overtime tally in 2020 was the difference in United’s first and only playoff win. Forward Amando Moreno will be looking to build on his first goal of 2022 — scored last week on his 27th birthday.
San Antonio (20-5-3): As one might expect, several players have put together outstanding seasons for the USL Championship Western Conference leader. Goalkeeper Jordan Farr
has been stellar with 14 clean sheets (one of them against New Mexico), 62 saves and just 20 goals conceded. SAFC as a team has allowed a league-low 22 goals in 28 matches. Forward Samuel Adeniran leads the club with nine goals and 51 shots, and midfielder Mohammed Abu has a team-best 43 chances created to go with five assists. Still, forward Justin Dhillon will undoubtedly feature prominently on United’s radar. The well-rounded Dhillon has six goals, seven assists, 36 shots and 24 chances created this season.
NOTEWORTHY: San Antonio FC has been particularly good at home this season (9-1-3) and has not lost at Toyota Field since a 2-0 defeat to Phoenix on April 2. … New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis will get his first look at SAFC this season after missing the first meeting because of injury. Cody Mizell played in San Antonio’s 1-0 win April 23 at Isotopes Park. … With two home dates remaining, NMU continues to lead the USLC in average home attendance (10, 474 per match). San Antonio (5,870 per match) ranks 10th.