As the USL Championship season surges towards the playoffs, the playoff picture has yet to become more clear. Outside of the top two spots, there’s a lot left to be decided in the final weeks of the regular season. Before New Mexico United (8-8-10) takes to the pitch on Sunday evening, they could find themselves sitting as low as 13th in the table depending on the results from around the league.
Over at 538’s website they do match and playoff predictions for the USL, as well as many other leagues around the world. As recently as their August 18th predictions, they gave United a greater than 85% chance to make the playoffs. Now though, they give United a 62% chance, the lowest they’ve been given since March. Winless in their last five matches, the much lower prediction is understandable.
The biggest issue for United over this stretch has been their defensive performance. With 14 goals conceded throughout the latest winless streak, they’ve now conceded more goals than they’ve scored on the season. They will need to find answers fast if they want to work their way back into the playoff discussion. After a strong first half against Orange County SC last week, mental lapses in the second half gave the visitors two goals within three minutes.
Opposing clubs have shown adjustments to the attacking style brought out by Troy Lesesne’s club. By playing more on a counter, they are likely to catch United out of position as OCSC did. On each of the goals, they were able to catch the United centerbacks Justin Schmidt and Rashid Tetteh in poor position. That allowed OCSC the opportunities they needed to get clean looks on goal. The backline for New Mexico has to improve if they want to make it back into playoff contention. They need to be more sure of their positioning and not letting players go unmarked inside the area.
Compounding the issue has been United’s slow starts both at the beginning of matches and coming out of halftime. Despite an early attempt against OCSC, they struggled to find shots until after the fifteen-minute mark. When United has scored first, they are undefeated, a 6-0-6 record. When they fall behind or are held goalless, their record is a meager 2-8-4. This speaks volumes to how this club has responded to adversity so far this season.
United, specifically Kevaughn Frater and Santi Moar, need to push the tempo early and find openings against their opponents this week. It’s been said multiple times that the club is full of unselfish players, but its past time for someone to step up, be selfish and take shots. Ball movement will be key to setting up the attack, and while United does like to build out of the back, it will be the midfield making the largest impact this weekend.
In recent weeks Chris Wehan has been a player to watch coming out of the midfield. While Wehan is an integral part of the attack, his counterpart Juan Pablo Guzman has to be just as solid in obtaining and maintaining possession to help spring the attack.
New Mexico United Player To Watch
Santi Moar – The Spaniard started the season hot and was around the top of the Golden Boot race for several weeks. Since then he’s fallen off in terms of goal production, and it’s shown in United’s results. More recently though, he’s been taking more shots and is starting to show closer to the early season form he displayed. With his ability to shoot from the edge of the box, he could find the back of the net this week.
New Mexico United Team Leaders
Goals: Frater (14)
Chances Created: Wehan (47)
Clearances: Schmidt (91)
Their opponent this week, OKC Energy FC (9-8-10), is looking to build on a solid run of form and further solidify their playoff hopes. They currently sit outside of 538’s predicted playoff clubs, but after picking up 8 out of a possible 15 points in their last five matches, they sit 6th in the table. A win would push them to 40 points and possibly as high as 4th place by the end of the weekend.
Recent wins over Portland Timbers 2 and Austin Bold FC have helped propel them towards a return to the playoffs after missing the cut last season. With Deshorn Brown and Chrisitan Eissele leading Energy FC, they’ve scored 12 goals in the last five matches, including four against both Timbers 2 and Bold FC. The pair of forwards will require the full attention of Schmidt and the rest of United’s backline. Any mental lapses and either of them could be in for a big night.
As high powered as the Energy offense has been, the club will be a bit shorthanded this weekend. After losing Amer Sasivarevic to an ACL injury, news came in this week that Josh Garcia, Alvin Jones, and Je-Vaughn Watson had all received call ups to their respective national clubs for the upcoming CONCACAF Nations League fixtures. Even without them, OKC will be a tough opponent for United this week.
OKC Energy FC Players to Watch
Christian Eissele – Although Brown is the club’s leading scorer, Eissele has come on strong in recent weeks against some very good opponents. The two play off of each other and create issues for opposing clubs. If Eissele is given space, he will take shots, and recent results have shown that he is more than capable of putting the ball past keepers.
OKC Energy FC Team Leaders
Goals: Brown (11)
Chances Created: Alexy Bosetti (36)
Clearances: Atiba Harris (111)
The match will be streamed live on ESPN+ beginning at 5:00 p.m. (Mountain) on Sunday, September 8. International viewers will be able to watch the match live on YouTube. ESPN+ is viewable online via the ESPN app or across a variety of mobile and connected living room devices, including Amazon’s Fire TV, Apple TV, Chromecast, Roku and more.
Photo credit: The Daily Lobo