By Josh Kaskinen
A must-win match in week two of the season?
It seems crazy to say, but then again, if it weren’t crazy, it wouldn’t be 2020.
A must-win situation is exactly the position that New Mexico United finds themselves in as the season resumes after a four month hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Their opponent this weekend, the Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC already sit atop Group C with three points thanks to their season-opening win against Oklahoma City Energy FC back on March 7, the same day that New Mexico United suffered a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Austin Bold FC. A loss this weekend would put New Mexico a full six points behind the Switchbacks, which would be a steep hole to climb out of considering they’d still have to contend with two other strong sides in the group in Real Monarchs SLC and El Paso Locomotive FC, and they’d only have 14 matches remaining to be able to reach the top two in the group standings in order to make the playoffs.
While it is a small sample size, we can get a glimpse into what the Switchbacks might look like based on that first match in Oklahoma City. In that match, Colorado Springs lined up in a 4-4-2 formation, utilizing forward Christian Volesky and midfielder Aiden Daniels up top. New Mexico United will have to contain those two players, as they are very capable as an offensive threat. Early in the 16’ against the Energy, Daniels collected a through ball on the right side before calmly threading it ahead to a streaking Volesky, who was able to easily beat Oklahoma City goalkeeper C.J. Cochran to take the early lead. Volesky brings a history of scoring with him to Colorado Springs, having tallied 42 goals since joining the USL Championship in 2015.
The Energy were able to equalize after halftime thanks to a 58’ minute goal by defender Atiba Harris off a set piece. That would be the only goal that the newly acquired Sean Melvin would give up that night though, as the Canadian national made four saves on his way to a win. Melvin finds himself back in the USL Championship this season after spending two seasons in MLS with the Vancouver Whitecaps, though he did not make any appearances. The Switchbacks will likely rely heavily on Melvin this season, though Colorado Rapids homegrown player Abraham Rodriguez is still on loan with the club. The 17-year-old Rodriguez had 55 saves in 16 appearances with the Switchbacks last season.
The go ahead goal that would secure the win for the Switchbacks came in the 78’, when midfielder Uvaldo Luna sent a cross in front of the Oklahoma City net. It was ruled an own goal, however, as it bounced off defender Tucker Stephenson past Cochran and into the net.
Though many in the soccer world are still predicting the Switchbacks to finish in last place in Group C, they look to have made some improvements from a year ago. Their offseason acquisition of South African midfielder George Lebese was met with much fanfare and praise on social media. They also retained the services of defender Jordan Burt, who should play a key role in the backfield this season. Add in the additions in goal scoring and goalkeeping mentioned above, and this is a squad that could give the other three Group C teams fits this season. Anything less than three points on Saturday will make life very difficult for New Mexico United.
Though New Mexico might have their hands full with the Switchbacks, they certainly should be up to the task. As we saw back in March, the defense looks to be much improved this season, thanks to the additions of Kalen Ryden and David Najem, as well the return of players such as Rashid Tetteh, Justin Schmidt, Manny Padilla, and Josh Suggs. Cody Mizell will most certainly be the man in goal this week, but backup Philip Biegl will need to remain sharp throughout the season, as New Mexico United recently loaned Ben Beaury to Reno 1868 FC.
About the only thing that New Mexico United couldn’t find a way to do in the loss to Austin Bold FC in March was to score a goal. Newcomers Romeo Parkes, Sammy Sergi and Amando Moreno, as well as familiar faces Devon Sandoval and Chris Wehan will have to step up and find ways to put the ball in the back of the net.
Saturday’s match could end up being a battle of wits, as New Mexico Head Coach Troy Lesesne will face off against Switchbacks skipper Alan Koch, who took over for the final three games of the season last year. Koch brings a wealth of experience and knowledge with him to Colorado Springs, having won USL Championship Coach of the Year honors in 2018 while he was with FC Cincinnati. Lesesne had this to say about beginning play in a very tough Group C:
“It’s a very competitive group with the reigning USL Champion, Western Conference finalist, and a team in Colorado Springs led by a new coach who has a lot of experience both in the MLS & USL. I’m excited at the challenge and look forward to playing these opponents multiple times.”
Of course, the cloud of the COVID-19 pandemic still hangs over everyone involved with the USL Championship’s return to play. The league has implemented protocols aimed at keeping all players, coaches and staff safe and healthy, and are working with state and local health officials to do so. The Switchbacks will be allowing fans to attend this first game back at Weidner Field. Fans will be entering the stadium through the gate closest to their seats, and according to the team website, several other precautions have been put in place, including limited people inside restrooms, cashless transactions preferred, and facemasks “highly encouraged.” Colorado does have a limit restriction on the number of people that can attend outdoor events, though how many tickets the club is planning to sell remains unclear. Questions remain over the status of New Mexico United’s season in the wake of Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s update to the health order yesterday that included postponing the high school football and soccer seasons this fall. As the team is scheduled to travel between New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Texas as their season resumes, difficulties may arise around the 14 day quarantine period required of anyone visiting from outside the state. New Mexico United has stated that no New Mexicans will have access to the upcoming matches and that fans should not travel to Colorado Springs or El Paso.
The match can be streamed on ESPN+. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:00 p.m. on Saturday evening.