United trends up as playoffs begin in Sacramento - Albuquerque Journal

United trends up as playoffs begin in Sacramento

New Mexico United midfielder Daniel Bruce, right, is defended by Orange County SC’s Daniel Pedersen during action from early in the season. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal)

Analyzing the numbers is part of the game going into postseason play and USL Championship soccer is no exception.

How did playoff opponents match up in the regular season? What’s their history? Which team has the better attack or more consistent defense?

Who has the edge?

New Mexico United coach Zach Prince, whose team visits Sacramento Republic FC for a first-round Western Conference showdown Saturday night, has taken a more pragmatic approach to preparation. It might be best summed up as, what have you done lately?

Yes, fourth-seeded Sacramento has the edge versus No. 5 New Mexico in the historical department. Republic FC won the teams’ previous playoff encounter in 2019 and went 1-0-1 against NMU this season. Water under the bridge, Prince says.

“I don’t care about what happened in 2019 or what happened earlier this season,” he said, “because we can’t do anything about that. My focus is on what’s in front of us, how we’re playing now, how Sacramento’s playing now and what we can do to attack them effectively and have success.”

New Mexico (13-9-12) enters the postseason on a high note, unbeaten in its last five matches and with eight goals scored over its final three. The closing stretch included a win and two draws against the top three Western Conference seeds, San Antonio, San Diego and Colorado Springs.

What’s more, United was forced to play pressure matches over the final stretch to secure a playoff berth. That, midfielder Daniel Bruce said, could serve New Mexico well in postseason play.

“I think it helps with the way our lads have had to approach games lately,” he said. “We knew we had to deliver and we’ve done it. Now we have to continue that.”

Meanwhile, Sacramento (15-11-8) sputtered down the stretch after spending weeks in the national spotlight for its remarkable run to the U.S. Open Cup final. Republic FC went 0-3-1 and scored just one goal over a three-week span before finally locking up the No. 4 playoff seed with a 4-0 win over San Diego on Saturday night.

“They have tournament experience,” Prince said. “They played a few more games than we did in the U.S. Open Cup, and that experience helps them. But it also takes a toll physically, and Sacramento had a hard time around their Cup matches.”

From a numbers perspective, United and Republic FC’s regular-season results were similar. NMU scored 49 goals to Sacramento’s 48 but allowed six more goals (40 to Sacramento’s 34). Republic FC took 56 more shots than did United but was not particularly accurate and has one of the league’s worst conversion rates at 13%, United tied for eighth with a 16% conversion rate.

At the end of the day, Sacramento amassed 53 points, while New Mexico had 51 – its best total in four seasons of competition. Prince said he likely will pay more attention to United’s 2022 numbers after its postseason run concludes.

“My main goals were just to be better than the year before and to make the postseason,” he said. “It’s a step in the right direction and now we face a different obstacle going to the playoffs.”

Approaching that obstacle, Bruce said, is simple.

“Leave every ounce on that field,” he said. “It’s stay or go home.”

SCENARIOS: If New Mexico wins Saturday, its next match will likely be on the road. Top-seed San Antonio has a first-round bye and hosts the lowest remaining seed in next week’s conference semifinals. That would be the United-Sacramento winner if No. 2 San Diego and No. 3 Colorado Springs both advance. If one of those clubs loses, the New Mexico-Sacramento winner will travel to either San Diego or Colorado Springs in round two. If both lose, however, the New Mexico-Sacramento winner would host a second-round game against Rio Grande Valley.

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