New Mexico United controls its own destiny. For now.
By Seth Biddulph | Photo: Adam Nish
What a long strange trip it has been for New Mexico United (10-10-12). Everything that has happened this season comes down to this week. Two matches to determine United’s playoff fate. What seemed like an absolute certainty earlier in the season could end up just out of reach if they can’t get out of their current funk.
To do that, they’ll first have to step up against another club, Tacoma Defiance (7-9-16), that is already eliminated from playoff contention. That’s something they failed to do against RGV and Tulsa.
“It was a hard one to swallow,” said Chris Wehan speaking on the loss to Tulsa. “I think it was a missed opportunity, coming to the end of the season we need all the points we can get in this playoff race. The fact that we missed out on 3 points, even 1 point was the hardest part.”
United has already had two bites at the apple against clubs below them in the standings since October started. In both of those matches United fell behind and had to try and a poor history of trying to come from behind. On the season, United has only managed to win twice after conceding the first goal, the other eight wins have all come after the club scored the opener. Being back at The Lab could be just what they need.
“I think it helps to be at home,’ stated Santi Moar, ‘our fans have been supporting us throughout the year and they aren’t going to stop these two games. We want to finish this season with a good taste in our mouth and so do they.”
United are currently 5-3-7 at home and have found the back of the net 29 times in front of the home supporters. Not only have they been better offensively at home, defensively they’ve been better as well. United have only allowed 23 goals at home and two of the three clean sheets have taken place in Albuquerque. Neither of those stats bode well for Tacoma.
The biggest key in this match for United will be getting off to a fast start. That starts upfront with Devon Sandoval and Chris Wehan. Sandoval was nearly unstoppable during the month of September, especially when linking up with Manny Padilla. Now with seven goals in just over a month’s time, Sandoval has shattered his previous career high and is looking to continue pushing United into the playoffs. Wehan could also play a pivotal role in leading the charge. With Kevaughn Frater seeing limited playing time, while trying to avoid another suspension, Wehan has stepped up his form and could create issues for the Defiance back line on Wednesday night.
United won’t be at full strength, however, with captain Josh Suggs serving a one match suspension due to yellow card accumulation. In his absence, Austin Yearwood could get the nod to start in the left back role. While not as much of a physical presence in the defensive third as Suggs, Yearwood is pacey and can contribute to the attack. That’s not to say that he isn’t a good defender, the two just have different strengths.
Players to Watch
Chris Wehan – Involved with 14 goals this season (8 goals, 6 assists), Wehan has more than shown that he can be a dangerous player. Against a club like Tacoma, Wehan can take advantage of the middle of the pitch and make runs forcing Tacoma into poor positions.
New Mexico United Team Leaders
Chances Created: Wehan (56)
Goals: Frater (14)
There’s something about being eliminated from the playoffs that has a positive effect on clubs. It allows them to play loose and try new things. It gives them license to leave it all out on the pitch and if they don’t earn three points it has no real effect on them. Tacoma has been doing just that. They’ve been out of the playoff race for some time, but that hasn’t stopped them from giving it their all. Undefeated in their previous three matches, Tacoma even took a shocking win over Fresno FC.
The biggest issue facing Tacoma on Wednesday is their poor road form. With a 1-12-3 record on the road, it’s safe to say they’ve struggled quite a bit. In those 12 losses, Tacoma has been kept off the scoresheet 11 times.
Forward Justin Dhillon will do what he can to change that. After coming up through the LA Galaxy Academy, Dhillon signed with Tacoma ahead of the 2019 season and has had a major impact in the attacking third. Scoring 12 goals in 24 appearances this season, Dhillon will likely draw the attention of Justin Schmidt and Rashid Tetteh. All three players are at their best inside the box and it will be a strength on strength matchup to watch.
Not only have they struggled offensively in the attacking third on the road, the defense has been just as bad. The host clubs have scored 50 goals against Tacoma this season. That bodes well for United and their potent attack. For Tacoma to have any chance of walking away from this match with even a point, they will have to deal with each of United’s weapons. Whether or not they can do it will be a question for the clubs to settle on the pitch.
Players to Watch
Shandon Hopeau – The 20 year old has seen a lot of the pitch this season and has been able to find the back of the net five times. Spelling Dhillon, he should see opportunities to get in on goal and will likely get a number of looks
Tacoma Defiance Team Leaders
Chances Created: Jesse Daley (23)
Goals: Dhillon (12)
The match will be streamed live on ESPN+ beginning at 6:00 p.m. (Mountain) on Saturday, October 12. International viewers will be able to watch the match live on YouTube. ESPN+ is viewable online via the ESPN app or across a variety of mobile and connected living room devices, including Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and more.