As the playoffs draw ever closer, New Mexico United (8-6-10) is struggling to find the form needed to secure their spot in the playoffs. Although they still sit above the cutoff line, their grip on that spot is tenuous at best. Going winless in their last three matches hasn’t helped either.
Part of the issue is that beyond the top three spots, no club has yet to distinguish themselves from the rest. Mixed results for the clubs in the next 10 spots have kept them all within six points of each other. One weekend of unfavorable results and United could find themselves out of playoff position.
Of their ten remaining matches, seven of them are against clubs in the lower half of the Western Conference standings. That includes this week’s match against San Antonio FC (8-9-7). Both clubs are fighting for their playoff hopes and this weekend could be an indication of how the rest of the season will play out for each.
After the match against LA Galaxy II, a lot was made of United’s inability to finish. Yes, opportunities were missed. There’s more to it than that, however. Over the previous five matches, United have scored two goals per match and allowed 1.6 per match.
The real struggle, and it’s been written about at length, is whether or not the club can keep opponents from scoring. United had to work their way back twice after falling behind against Galaxy. More defensive miscues and poor fouls allowed the visitors the chances they needed. Troy Lesesne has spoken about it multiple times throughout the season, the club has to be better at grinding out victories.
That’s exactly what it will take against a club like San Antonio. Well, that and some smarter play on the pitch.
The first time the two clubs met was at The Lab and powered by a Chris Wehan brace, United easily defeated a struggling SAFC 3-0. This time around though, SAFC has been playing better in the lead up to the match and United will have to contend with the confines of Toyota Field.
Much like United, San Antonio struggles defensively at times and allows goals to leak in at inopportune times. Some of these struggles stem from not being able to control the midfield, something that United does very well. If United, and more specifically Juan Pablo Guzman, can assert control of the midfield and create turnovers, it can open up chances against that backline of San Antonio.
It then, of course, falls to Kevaughn Frater and company to make the most of those opportunities.
Frater has hands down been United’s biggest threat offensively, his passion showing through in every match, but he’s also been a liability at times. Having already served two single-match suspensions for yellow card accumulation, he’s sitting one card shy of receiving a two-match suspension. That’s something that both he and San Antonio will be very well aware of going into the match. He has to find a way to temper his fiery temperament, but not lose that striker’s touch.
Most of United’s goals have come from within the box this season, and that’s a product of ball movement around it. United needs to be quicker on the pass and go at the San Antonio backline. Under pressure, they don’t perform well and tend to lose their shape.
Players to Watch
Kevaughn Frater – After an exciting match against LA Galaxy II, Frater is looking to improve upon that performance, both mentally and physically. With a poorly taken penalty and his 10th yellow behind him, hopefully, Frater will turn it around and push the tempo.
United’s midfield – Guzman and company will need to control the midfield. Throughout the season turnovers in the midfield have helped to create chances for United on the offensive end, and have alleviated some of the pressure on United’s back four.
New Mexico United Team Leaders
Goals: Frater (14)
Chances Created: Wehan (44)
San Antonio FC is holding out hope that they can still make the playoffs this year. After a poor start and injuries held them back, they have been showing signs of improvement with their recent results. With wins over Reno 1868 and Austin Bold, they’ve shown that on any given night they can compete with anyone. On the other hand though, after dropping points to Rio Grande Valley and Orange County, some folks wondered if the results against Austin and Reno were just flukes.
The addition of Frank Lopez has brought a much-needed spark to their attack. More often than not, he finds himself inside the box and makes the most of his chances. Sporting a 21.3% conversion rate, SAFC has made targeting Lopez a priority, and it’s working. With the vast majority of their goals coming from within the area, it also provides a blueprint for how to beat them.
If United can pack the box, they stand a good chance of keeping San Antonio off the score sheet. That’s easier said than done though. The return of Josh Suggs and Manny Padilla will improve the club’s defensive play and gives Lopez a much tougher task.
That’s where Jack Barmby and Pecka need to step up. The two midfielders could provide the link-up play and creativity needed to break into United’s defensive third. Since his return from injury, Pecka has helped to solidify an already formidable midfield. Against a United side that likes to press, the duo will need to find ways to break the pressure and push the ball up the pitch.
Players to Watch
Pecka – His presence was sorely missed by SAFC while out with an injury earlier this year. In the time he was spent on the pitch this year, he’s managed an 88.9% pass completion rating and is always looking to advance the ball. He could be a key in opening up space for Lopez on the United half of the pitch.
Joshua Yaro – Yaro has been the ‘Iron Man’ for San Antonio this year having played every minute so far this season. With 102 clearances, 17 blocks and 29 interceptions on the season, he’s been a problem for every club they’ve faced this season. Now, he gets the unenviable task of trying to defend Kevaughn Frater. This will be a key matchup throughout the night.
San Antonio FC Team Leaders
Goals: Lopez (10)
Chances Created: Barmby (48)
The match will be streamed live on ESPN+ beginning at 6:30 p.m. (Mountain) on Saturday, August 24. International viewers will be able to watch the match live on YouTube.