Anybody up for a high-stakes Friday night in Vegas?
New Mexico United is rested and ready for some serious table action – the USL Championship’s Western Conference table, that is.
United (11-9-10) opens the season’s final four-match sprint Friday with at Las Vegas Lights FC (11-13-7), and it’s certainly fair to say both clubs have a lot on the line. NMU stands sixth in the muddled conference race (seven teams qualify for the playoff), while Las Vegas is in a three-way tie for eighth.
Precarious is a fitting description of New Mexico’s playoff position. NMU and fifth-place El Paso have 43 points apiece, suddenly red-hot Rio Grande Valley has 42, while Las Vegas, Monterey Bay and Oakland have 40 each.
Depending on the outcome of Friday’s contest and several other weekend matchups, United could wake up Monday morning anywhere from fifth place to below the playoff line.
The stakes are not lost on New Mexico’s players.
“This is the time of the year that you live for,” midfielder Justin Portillo said. “Every game is important, but these games at the end of the season when you’re fighting for the playoffs mean more. I can’t wait.”
Oddly enough, United has had to wait a while to begin its finishing stretch. NMU has not played since earning a 1-1 draw at San Antonio on Sept. 17.
Meanwhile, the conference standings have tightened around coach Zach Prince and his players. Still, Prince believes the 13-day break between games has been beneficial.
“We’ve had good training sessions, our energy is improved and our team is getting more and more healthy,” Prince said. “Now we have to take this energy and use it the right way. Every game is like the cup final now. There’s only one direction for us to go.”
United hopes to build on its last outing, when it outplayed first-place San Antonio in the second half and narrowly missed coming away with three points at Toyota Field. The 1-1 draw snapped NMU’s three-game losing skid.
Las Vegas also has a little momentum coming off a 4-0 romp over Monterey Bay on Wednesday night. Prior to that, Lights FC had lost four straight to slip below the playoff line. Prince said Las Vegas, which has an affiliate partnership with MLS Los Angeles FC, has changed dramatically since it visited Albuquerque for the regular-season opener in March.
“They have different players on loan from LAFC,” he said, “and they’ve changed their alignment to a 4-2-3-1. They kind of found their rhythm against Monterey Bay, so we expect a battle. Las Vegas is a quality team.”
Coming off its recent break, New Mexico does have an edge over most of the clubs contending for the final three Western Conference playoff spots. United and Rio Grande Valley have four games remaining, while El Paso, Las Vegas, Monterey Bay and Oakland have just three to play.
Midfielder Sam Hamilton believes New Mexico has shaken off the three-game slump that culminated with an uninspired 3-1 loss at RGVFC on Sept. 10.
“The RGV game was a low for us,” Hamilton said, “but we came together after that and just realized that everything was still there for us. We played well in San Antonio and I like where we’re at as a group. Going into these last four matches, we still hold all the cards.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
New Mexico (11-9-10): Defender Austin Yearwood has been limited to 12 matches because of injuries this season, but he returned to the lineup against San Antonio FC on Sept. 17 and made a difference. In
addition to assisting on Chris Wehan’s equalizing goal, Yearwood recorded five tackles, three interceptions and won seven of 11 duels. He helped solidify United’s back line, which surrendered just one significant scoring chance. Midfielder Harry Swartz also returned from injury, winning eight of 10 duels and drawing four SAFC fouls. Wehan moved into a tie with Neco Brett for the team lead by scoring his seventh goal and now needs just one to reach 50 regular-season goals for his career.
Las Vegas (11-13-7): After scoring a total of five goals over its previous eight matches, Lights FC broke loose in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Monterey Bay. As one might expect, Daniel Trejo and Cal Jennings accounted for three of the goals. Trejo (13 goals) and Jennings (10) have accounted for 23 of Las Vegas’ 36 goals and have combined for 11 assists and 86 shots. Las Vegas ranks 25th in shot attempts with 299. (United has 364.) Two players have been standouts on Lights FC’s back line as well. Defenders Alejandro Lara and Dekel Keinan rank second and third in the league with 143 and 130 clearances, respectively. Abraham Romero (47 saves, 22 goals conceded) is the primary goalkeeper.
NOTEWORTHY: Anyone who thinks New Mexico’s 2022 season has progressed an awful lot like 2021 is not mistaken. United had an identical 11-9-10 record through 30 matches last season with 41 goals scored and 37 allowed. NMU has 41 goals scored and 35 allowed in 2022. … United will wear one-time alternate white jerseys for Friday’s match. The jerseys feature NMU’s shield along with “Omega Mart” — the name of Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas installation — across the front over an elongated “soccercow.”