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United face high stakes in Vegas game

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Anyone ready for a high-stakes Friday night in Vegas?

New Mexico United are rested and ready for some serious action at the table — the USL Championship Western Conference table, that is.

Justin Portillo

United (11-9-10) open the final four-game sprint of the season on Friday with Las Vegas Lights FC (11-13-7), and it’s certainly fair to say that both clubs have a lot to do. NMU is sixth in the confusing conference race (seven teams advance to the playoffs), while Las Vegas is tied at three for eighth.

Precarious is an apt description of New Mexico’s playoff position. NMU and fifth-placed El Paso each have 43 points, Sudden Rio Grande Valley has 42, while Las Vegas, Monterey Bay and Oakland have 40 each.

Depending on the outcome of Friday’s contest and several other weekend clashes, United could wake up Monday morning anywhere from fifth place to below the playoff line.

The stakes are not lost for New Mexico players.

“It’s the time of year you live for,” said midfielder Justin Portillo. “Every game is important, but those end-of-season games where you fight for the playoffs mean more. I can’t wait.

Curiously, United had to wait a while to start their home stretch. NMU has not played since its 1-1 draw at San Antonio on September 17.

Meanwhile, the conference standings have tightened around coach Zach Prince and his players. Still, Prince believes the 13-day break between games has been beneficial.

“We’ve had good training sessions, our energy has improved and our team is getting better and better,” Prince said. “Now we have to take that energy and use it in the right way. Every game is like the cup final now. We have only one direction to follow.

United are hoping to build on their last outing, when they topped first-place San Antonio in the second half and narrowly missed coming away with three points at Toyota Field. The 1-1 draw snapped NMU’s three-game losing streak.

Las Vegas also has some momentum after a 4-0 loss to Monterey Bay on Wednesday night. Prior to that, Lights FC had lost four straight to slip below the playoff line. Prince said Las Vegas, which has an affiliate partnership with MLS Los Angeles FC, has changed dramatically since visiting Albuquerque for the regular season opener in March.

“They have different players on loan from LAFC,” he said, “and they changed their roster to 4-2-3-1. They sort of found their groove against Monterey Bay, so we expect a battle. Las Vegas is a quality team.

After its recent hiatus, New Mexico has an advantage over most clubs vying for the final three Western Conference playoff spots. United and Rio Grande Valley have four games left to play, while El Paso, Las Vegas, Monterey Bay and Oakland have just three to play.

Midfielder Sam Hamilton believes New Mexico has overcome the three-game slump that culminated in an uninspired 3-1 loss at RGVFC on September 10.

“The RGV game was a low for us,” Hamilton said, “but we came together after that and just realized that everything was still there for us. We played well in San Antonio and I like where we’re at. We are as a group. Going into these last four matches, we still have all the cards in hand.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

New Mexico (11-9-10): Defender Austin Yearwood has been limited to 12 games due to injury this season, but returned to the roster against San Antonio FC on September 17 and made the difference. In

Austin Yearwood

in addition to assisting on Chris Wehan’s tying goal, Yearwood recorded five tackles, three interceptions and won seven of 11 games. He helped solidify United’s back line, which gave up just one significant scoring chance. Midfielder Harry Swartz also returned from injury, winning eight of 10 duels and drawing four SAFC fouls. Wehan tied with Neco Brett for the team lead by scoring his seventh goal and needs just one more to reach 50 regular season goals for his career.

Las Vegas (11-13-7): After scoring a total of five goals in their last eight games, Lights FC escaped in Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Monterey Bay. As expected, Daniel Trejo and Cal Jennings scored three of the goals. Trejo (13 goals) and Jennings (10) accounted for 23 of Las Vegas’ 36 goals and had 11 assists and 86 shots. Las Vegas ranks 25th in shot attempts with 299. (United has 364.) Two players also stood out on the Lights FC backline. Defensemen Alejandro Lara and Dekel Keinan rank second and third in the league with 143 and 130 clearances, respectively. Abraham Romero (47 saves, 22 goals conceded) is the main goalkeeper.

NOTE: Anyone who thinks New Mexico’s 2022 season has progressed hugely like 2021 isn’t mistaken. United had an identical record of 11-9-10 in 30 appearances last season with 41 goals scored and 37 conceded. NMU has 41 goals scored and 35 allowed in 2022. … United will wear unique alternate white shirts for Friday’s game. The jerseys feature the NMU shield as well as “Omega Mart” – the name of Meow Wolf’s Las Vegas facility – on the front above an elongated “soccercow”.