Positive steps for United in 2022 - Albuquerque Journal

Positive steps for United in 2022

Midfielder Justin Portillo (43) delivers a free kick during United’s July 6 game against Rio Grande Valley at Isotopes Park. Portillo led the club in goals, assists and appearances and was named its MVP. (Chancey Bush/Journal)

The 2022 season was a step forward for New Mexico United — just not as big a step as first-year coach Zach Prince had in mind.

United returned to the USL Championship playoffs after missing the postseason in 2021. NMU also posted franchise records for wins and points in its 13-10-12 campaign, finishing fifth in the 13-team USLC Western Conference.

Organizational progress came in other areas, too. United opened a new training center at its Mesa del Sol practice facility, completed its first season of U23 play in USL League Two and posted a strong Academy campaign. NMU will compete in the USL Academy Playoffs in November.

New Mexico also led the USL Championship in home attendance (10,724 per match) for the second time in its four seasons.

“A lot of positives,” Prince said. “I’m excited about where we’re headed.”

Still, United fell short of some expectations, going one-and-done in the playoffs after a 2-0 loss at Sacramento Republic on Oct. 22. Prince and his players had hoped to earn the franchise’s first home playoff game but hurt their own cause by finishing 5-6-5 at Isotopes Park.

Injuries played a role as key contributors like Neco Brett, Chris Wehan, Josh Suggs, Cristian Nava and Jerome Kiesewetter all missed numerous matches. But New Mexico also frequently struggled to score goals. In 35 USLC matches, United was limited to one goal 10 times and was shut out nine times.

Prince said upgrading his team’s attack will be an offseason priority.

“We’re solid in a lot of areas,” Prince said, “but some areas do need to be better. Defensively, we allowed the third-fewest goals in the Western Conference and we can build on that. But our chance creation has to improve and we have to capitalize.

“The margins are slim in this league and we played to 12 draws. If we win just half of those games, we finish second in the conference.”

Things, including the roster, figure to look different when United returns to training in January.

Prince said he plans to meet with players in the coming days regarding who will return in 2023. Prince said United has “11 or 12” players under contract for next season (Wehan, Nava, Sergio Rivas and Kalen Ryden are among them) and holds club options on several others.

Still, there will be changes.

“We need to get the right players back and bring some new players in,” Prince said. “I think it’s important to freshen up the roster, but it’s also important to take some time and be clear-minded about those decisions, not let the fatigue of the season get to you.”

Prince said at least three current United academy players will join the first team for preseason training in 2023.

PLAYER AWARDS: United this week announced its End-of-Year Player awards, voted on by fans, media and club staff. Midfielder Justin Portillo was honored twice, as team MVP and Newcomer of the Year.

Here are the award winners:

MVP/Newcomer of the Year: Portillo posted team-highs with eight goals scored and five assists. He led the club in minutes (2,812) and matches played (34).

Somos Unidos Award: Ryden. The defender was honored as the player who “best exemplified the organization’s ethos of hard work, humility, diligence and action.”

Humanitarian of the Year: Daniel Bruce. The midfielder was tabbed for his connection to the community and work on and off the field.

Offensive Player of the Year: Wehan. The forward scored seven goals, became United’s career leader in goals scored and led the USLC with three goals scored on free kicks.

Defensive Player of the Year: Alex Tambakis. The goalkeeper finished with 70 saves and seven clean sheets.

NEW LOOK LAB: Both United and the Albuquerque Isotopes will have new grass and a new-look field to play on in 2023.

The Isotopes removed the hill in center field one day after the baseball team’s Sept. 28 season finale and began removing some of the outfield turf shortly thereafter. Remaining turf was taken out after United’s final home game against Colorado Springs on Oct. 15. Isotopes Park would not have been available if United had secured a home playoff game.

“We were prepared for that,” United communications director David Carl said. “We reached out to UNM and they were very willing to work with us if we had gotten an opportunity to host a playoff game.”

The turf at Isotopes Park had not been replaced in more than 10 years and had taken a beating with two professional sports teams using it since 2019. The replacement project is expected to be finished by December and ready in time for the 2023 seasons.

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