In an extraordinary season, New Mexico United has met every challenge with tenacity and remarkable verve. Those efforts paid off after a team performance sent New Mexico into the playoffs with a style-affirming flourish in the club’s second season.
French winger Joris Ahlinvi scored in the 57th minute, Real Monarchs SLC put on a woeful performance and United punctuated its regular season finale with a victory at Zion’s Bank Stadium on a late September evening.
With the win, United kept its sparkling record against the Monarchs in 2020 unblemished, finishing the season 4-0 against its neighbors to the northwest.
The conclusion of United’s regular season marked the close of one of the most extraordinary campaigns in world football history. With all 15 of its matches mandated as road games in line with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s public health orders, New Mexico put together a dazzling resume, going 8-4-3 without a single home match to call its own.
The reward has been a second straight slot in the USL Championship playoffs. A possible rescheduling of United’s postponed match with Rio Grande Valley FC also makes a first-seed playoff spot a possibility.
Coming off a 0-0 draw with Group C leaders El Paso Locomotive FC — who played to the same scoreline against Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC on Wednesday night — New Mexico required and achieved the full three points to remain in contention for the coveted top seed.
Head coach and technical director Troy Lesesne opted to rest much of his club’s strongest players in a clear bid to prepare for United’s second playoff match in the team’s young history.
The Monarchs, coming off a rough spell of form with just one win in its previous five matches — which New Mexico matched, drawing just five points from a possible 15 — were rudderless from the outset. Salt Lake City, which came into the match 30th of 36 USL Championship teams with just 14 goals scored on the season to go with a solitary clean sheet, were brutalized throughout the first interval. United’s attack overwhelmed the Monarch’s defensive shape, and Ahlinvi pushed the away team ahead with a clean finish early in the second half.
With the regular season in the rearview, attention now turns to New Mexico’s postseason aspirations. United’s playoff seeding — whether it be first or second — remains very much up in the air.
Its playoff destiny sealed, it remains unclear if New Mexico will be able — or indeed allowed — to make up its 16th and final match of the season after a rash of COVID-19 positive cases forced the indefinite postponement of its September clash with Rio Grande Valley FC.
If it is indeed the case that New Mexico plays just 15 matches, a points-per-game model will decide the group winner.
“When a single team cannot play its full 16-game schedule, the points per game model voted on by the USL Championship Board of Governors will be applied to the remaining matches unable to be played,” according to the USL Championship.
Daily Lobo Man of the Match
Ahlinvi was the hero, but the evening’s events belonged elsewhere. Daniel Bruce, the spry 24-year-old Englishman from Warrington via the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, made his presence known early with a stiff tackle on a Real defender and never looked back. Strong challenges throughout the first half and a keen sense of offensive vigor lent Lesesne’s side the creativity needed to cap off a sensational season with three points.
Drive-In Watch Parties
To mark the occasion of the regular season’s final tilt, owner Peter Trevisani and Co. arranged for a socially distanced watch party at Balloon Fiesta Park in Albuquerque that attracted a crowd of more than 250, according to United communications director David Carl.
“It was a blast, it was so much fun — it’s so great to find ways to get the family together, it just feels so good to be together,” Carl said.
New Mexico, having wrapped up a playoff spot well earlier in September, was playing for prestige — and a first-seed slot that has no guarantee of materializing.
But in a most unusual season disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic, the result of the evening brought into existence a most unusual set of playoff implications.
The USL Championship has deferred on taking action to perhaps reschedule United’s postponed match with Rio Grande Valley FC after multiple positive COVID-19 cases forced the league to push the game back. According to Carl, the league has yet to make a decision regarding the postponed match and whether New Mexico will be able to wrap up its second season and complete the full 16-match schedule.
Andrew Gunn is the copy editor and a senior reporter at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @agunnwrites