After an extended off-season due to delays related to COVID-19, the USL season is finally underway. Although the season officially began one week ago, this week, most of the league will get their first competitive minutes on the pitch since the end of September.
With the return to a full schedule this season, matches will be closer together, and the league has a new format for the second time in two seasons. The 2021 season will feature four divisions instead of the eight from 2020. That change means that the top four clubs from each will make the playoffs. For New Mexico United, the competition looks to be even tougher this year as the Mountain division will feature some of the best clubs in the Western Conference.
Those opponents will have to wait for now. In their season opener, United head south to take on Rio Grande Valley FC. The two clubs are meeting for the first time since 2019, after the match in 2020 was postponed then eventually canceled due to a positive COVID test within the RGV organization. The two clubs faced each other twice in the 2019 season, with both matches ending as a draw.
In an offseason full of change for the Toros, they essentially flipped their entire roster, brought back former Head Coach Wilmer Cabrera, and renegotiated their agreement with the parent club Houston Dynamo allowing them to be fully independent. All in hopes that they can drag themselves out of the basement of the Western Conference.
Players to Watch
Erik Pimentel – The former Club America centre-back has spent the last few years bouncing around different clubs in Liga MX and Guatemala. He brings a tremendous amount of experience to a club in need of it.
Vicente Sanchez – After seventeen years of playing football worldwide, Sanchez retired from the MLS in 2017. During the offseason, he signed to RGV to be a player-coach and has played under Cabrera in the past. At the age of 41, it remains to be seen how much of an impact he will make on the pitch.
In contrast to what RGV has done this offseason, United returned over half of the players that were on the roster in 2020. For those that didn’t return, the club appears to have upgraded at every position. With new players in every position, the preseason was an intense tryout to see who would claim a spot in the starting XI.
After winning their final four matches of the preseason, United looks poised to start the regular season on a high note. The performances of the squad improved through each match, culminating in a 4-0 win over Phoenix Rising in the final tune-up match.
Players to Watch
Amando Moreno – The club’s second-leading scorer in 2020, Moreno went on a tear during a period of the COVID-shortened season. With a stronger supporting cast around him, Moreno could easily challenge for the Golden Boot in 2021.
Alex Tambakis – One of the top keepers in the USL over the past few years, Alex comes to New Mexico looking to help fill the hole left by the departure of Cody Mizell. With big shoes to fill and stiff competition from Philipp Beigl, it remains to be seen just who will be the number one or how Troy Lesesne will handle the situation.
Saturday night’s match is set for a 6:30 p.m. (MDT) kickoff from H-E-B Park in Edinburg, Texas. Domestically the match can be streamed live on ESPN+. International viewers can watch the match live on YouTube.