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Gaudin: Red or Green? A Tactical Breakdown of New Mexico United vs. SAFC

In a divisional matchup against a playoff opponent from last season, goals from Josh Suggs and Austin Yearwood lifted United to a 2-0 victory over San Antonio FC

Welcome to the first edition of the newest column here at Seek & Strike Collective: Red or Green? This column aims to provide a tactical analysis of New Mexico United games along with some hot takes! The format is as follows: Green chile will be given to phases of the game that were strengths for United. Red chile will be given to those phases where the team struggled most. Christmas will be used to identify areas of improvement that are needed.

By Thomas Gaudin | Photo: DosPhoto

Josh Suggs

Without further ado, let’s get into the match. 

Match Overview: New Mexico United bounced back on Wednesday night from their disappointing 0-0 draw against Austin Bold on the weekend. In a divisional matchup against a playoff opponent from last season, goals from Josh Suggs and Austin Yearwood lifted United to a 2-0 victory over San Antonio FC.

New Mexico United came out in their usual 3-5-2 setup with 7 changes from the lineup used on Saturday against Austin Bold. With Sergio Rivas injured, Micheal Azira stepped into the midfield, and Chelo Martinez was rested for Andrew Tinari. The biggest lineup surprise came with the inclusion of Brian Brown and Amando Moreno at striker, pushing Devon Sandoval to the bench. 

Brian Brown

Tactically, United looked to maintain the majority of possession by building from the back with their centerbacks. The goal was to break down the compact shape of their opponent with side-to-side passing while primarily using their wingbacks for width. Moreno offered a different look from Ilija Ilic as a more free-form attacker that could drop in and link up with the midfield. 

San Antonio FC came out in a 5-3-2. In possession, it looks very similar to the setup used by United. However, the defense in this system is more compact with wingbacks playing closer to the Back 3 and a defensive midfielder covering the centerbacks. The backline is full of talented defenders such as Liam Doyle (formerly of Nashville SC). In attack, young midfielder Jose Gallegos is always dangerous with the ball at his feet.

Tactically, San Antonio looked to play a more offensive version of the game plan employed by Austin Bold over the weekend. The defense looked to absorb pressure from United’s possession-based system and break out quickly in transition after a turnover. The goal is to create chances with 4 attackers running at 3 defenders after the ball changes hands.

Now that we have a good idea of how the match played out, it is time to assign some grades:

GREEN: Centerback Play- United relies heavily on their centerbacks to perform and it showed tonight. The Back 3 were tasked with shutting down a dangerous attack from San Antonio and did so quite successfully. While the visitors managed to get off 14 shots, few were from dangerous positions and only 3 were on target. As San Antonio started to press more towards the end of the contest, all three centerbacks did well to keep chances to a minimum and protect Tambakis. A special shout-out goes to Kalen Ryden for covering a huge amount of ground and killing several dangerous attacks. He had an excellent match and continues to be the anchor of the United defense.

GREEN: Testing the Keeper- When you get the ball into a dangerous area around the box, sometimes the best thing to do is fire a shot and make the keeper work. Good things happen when you shoot the ball. Keepers are forced to react and make big saves. Sometimes they can’t make the save or even spill the ball leading to secondary chances.

One major flaw from the Austin Bold match last weekend was the unwillingness to shoot the ball. United would work possession into a dangerous area before looking to pass to non-existent runners. Often this would end in a turnover or a back-pass that allowed Bold to reset their compact defensive shape.

Tonight, United did a far better job of testing the keeper. We saw this multiple times from Moreno. Most notably, an effort in transition at the end of the first half led to a spilled ball from the opposing keeper in a dangerous area. Yearwood also chose to take a shot from distance off of a short free kick and found top corner for a spectacular second United goal. 

RED: Midfield Play- Midfield play is rapidly becoming a problem for United. In a Back 3 system, you lose your connection between the backline and the strikers when the midfield can’t find the game. At times, the midfield trio of Tinari, Azira, and Guzman struggled in possession and got overrun. There were several instances of Azira or Guzman not being able to pick out a pass and creating a turnover in a dangerous space. Tinari often failed to create in the half-spaces from his False 9 role (his assist was a rare bright spot and a great pass to find Suggs). To compensate for an invisible midfield, Moreno often had to drop all the way back to the halfway line to receive the ball and run at defenders.

If United is successfully going to break down defensively-minded teams, then they need to get more than what we saw tonight from the midfield. 

RED: Pace of Play/Movement- Another recurring problem for United this season is the pace of play and, by extension, their movement. Teams in the division are starting to recognize the benefits of playing defensively and forcing United to break them down. To do this, there needs to be more off-ball movement, and the passes need to come quicker. Too often, we see a United wingback standing over the ball with few options to distribute. This then leads to turnovers or back-passes to defenders, relieving any built-up pressure on opposing defenses.

Incisive runs open up space for other players to run into. Quick hitting passes pull defenders out of shape opening up even more space. Again tonight, there were too many off-ball attackers standing still. This forced slow, side-to-side passing between wingbacks and centerbacks that killed the attack. Even on corner kicks, there is no disguised movement, just slow runs and hopeful attempts to win headers. 

Better pace and movement is crucial to scoring more goals. Despite two great moments to score on Wednesday, United still has not shown the ability to break down a low block and will continue to struggle against defensive teams moving forward.

CHRISTMAS: Transition Defense- San Antonio clearly came out with a game plan to create turnovers in the midfield and hit quickly on the counter. They executed this well with 14 shots on only 29% possession. Time after time, San Antonio attackers would run forward and create opportunities. It took a great effort from the United Back 3 to keep a clean sheet on multiple occasions.

Gallegos looked especially dangerous going forward for San Antonio. More than once, he beat one or two defenders to create a chance for the visitors. Credit is due to the United defense for their heroic efforts to deny Gallegos and his teammates, but the lack of comfort shown in these moments reveals an area that needs improvement.

CHRISTMAS: Possession- It is hard to complain about possession in a match where you control the ball 71% of the time. That’s not going to stop me from doing it for this match. 71% possession with only 13 chances created shows that United still has a ways to go before they look dangerous consistently in a period of sustained possession. In order to become a better team, United must cut down on “meaningless possession” where the ball moves slowly around the backline without creating any danger. Less possession would be welcomed in exchange for more ambitious passes that aim to break lines and disorganize the opposition.

All of that being said, I would much rather see 71% of the ball than 29% of the ball. Long spells of possession played a key role in killing the last 25 minutes of the game off without allowing too many dangerous chances. When United goes up in a match, they don’t drop many points because their opponents don’t see much of the ball. It’s an important skill to have in the USL.

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