Toyota Field in San Antonio, Texas hasn’t exactly been a house of horrors for New Mexico United.
Yes, NMU got beaten up there (3-0) on national television once last season, but there were some moments to remember as well. United cruised to a 1-0 win on their other visit to Toyota Field last season, and the club’s only USL Championship playoff victory came there in 2020.
Perhaps that’s partly why United manager Zach Prince and his players are looking forward to Saturday’s away game against Western Conference leaders San Antonio FC. Based on recent results, it doesn’t seem likely to be a pleasant walk in the grass.
San Antonio (20-5-3) has been the conference’s top dog most of the season and has already clinched a playoff berth. SAFC is coming off a 1-0 victory over second-placed San Diego and is closing in on a regular-season title and a first-round bye.
New Mexico, meanwhile, is desperate to regain its midseason form and improve its playoff positioning with five games remaining in the regular season. United (11-9-9) sit in fifth place, but their place above the playoff line has become precarious during the club’s recent 1-6-1 funk.
United manager Zach Prince and his players were far from happy after last week’s 3-1 loss at Rio Grande Valley, a game in which they were thoroughly outplayed after taking a 1- 0 on Amando Moreno’s goal in the eighth minute.
“We’re not happy with our position in these last games,” Prince said, “especially the way we played in Rio Grande Valley. … We challenged ourselves this week. Yeah, we created ourselves a lot chances in recent games, but we’re tired of saying it, we need results.
Prince and his players are well aware that goals and points have been hard to come by against San Antonio this season. The SAFC are 9-1-3 at home and have allowed a total of 22 league goals.
Yet United came up against San Antonio earlier this season at Isotopes Park, eventually losing 1-0 on a 67th-minute penalty from Justin Dhillon.
“As a group we are very excited about this game,” said midfielder Sam Hamilton. “Regardless of the opponent, we are optimistic. There are five games left in the season and it’s time to tighten our concentration.
It’s a different challenge for United as San Antonio’s attack is unusual among Western Conference clubs. SAFC rank eighth in the league in goals scored (46), but last by a wide margin in assists.
“They’re a very direct team, big in size, and they just like to serve the ball and attack,” said NMU midfielder Justin Portillo. “We have to stay behind them defensively and capitalize when we have opportunities.”
United could get a boost as some of their injured players (striker Jerome Kiesewetter, midfielder Josh Suggs and defender Austin Yearwood) have had full weeks of training, Prince said.
ACADEMY CLINCHER: New Mexico United‘s academy team earned a division championship and a berth in the USL Academy Playoffs with a 5-1 win over San Diego at Mesa del Sol on Friday.
Former Santa Fe High star Alex Wagoner scored twice in his first NMU appearance. Denilson Velasquez, Miles Merritt and Ivan Moore also scored for New Mexico (11-1-1), which avenged its only loss, a 1-0 loss to San Diego earlier this season.
By winning the Southwest Division, United earns one of 12 automatic berths for the 16-team Championship Tournament, scheduled for mid-November in Tampa, Florida. New Mexico qualified as a wild card last season and finished third.
“I’m really proud of these boys,” said NMU academy coach Luke Sanford. “They’re the best team in the division because they’ve worked so hard in practice every day. Our goal was to get to the playoffs and we did, so now the goal is to go out and win. Representing our state outside of that environment against the best teams in the country is a big deal.
NEW MEXICO UNITED at SAN ANTONIO FC
Saturday, 6:30 p.m., espn+ (streaming), 101.7 FM
PLAYERS TO WATCH
New Mexico (11-9-9): United’s struggling offense (four goals in their last five games) will face a tough challenge against the USL league’s best defense at San Antonio. New Mexico was unable to find a regular finisher, especially since forward Neco Brett was injured. The best hope for a breakthrough on Saturday may rest with Chris Wehan, who had notable success at Toyota Field. Wehan scored the only goal in NMU’s 1-0 victory at SAFC last season and his extra-time tally in 2020 was the difference in United’s first and only playoff victory. Striker Amando Moreno will be looking to build on his first goal of 2022 – scored last week on his 27th birthday.
San Antonio (20-5-3): Predictably, several players have had stellar seasons for the USL Championship Western Conference leader. Goalkeeper Jordan Farr
was stellar with 14 clean sheets (including one against New Mexico), 62 saves and just 20 goals against. The SAFC as a team have conceded 22 league goals in 28 matches. Striker Samuel Adeniran leads the club with nine goals and 51 shots, and midfielder Mohammed Abu has a team record 43 created chances to go with five assists. Still, striker Justin Dhillon will undoubtedly be high on United’s radar. The well-rounded Dhillon has six goals, seven assists, 36 shots and 24 chances created this season.
NOTE: San Antonio FC have been particularly good at home this season (9-1-3) and haven’t lost at Toyota Field since a 2-0 loss to Phoenix on April 2. … New Mexico goaltender Alex Tambakis will get his first look at SAFC this season after missing the first game with an injury. Cody Mizell starred in San Antonio’s 1-0 win April 23 at Isotopes Park. … With two home dates remaining, NMU continues to lead the USLC in home attendance average (10,474 per game). San Antonio (5,870 per game) ranks 10th.