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Back in action: Ryden, United hope to regain stride versus Hartford Athletic

Jun. 7—Saturday, 7 p.m., 101.7 FM, ESPN+ (streaming), Estrella TV

Kalen Ryden much prefers active participation to spectating.

New Mexico United's veteran defender has typically been an iron man, anchoring the team's back line and ranking near the top of the USL Championship in minutes played. Ryden started and finished all 34 of NMU's matches in 2023 and played a team-high 3,042 minutes.

So far, 2024 has been different.

Ryden started and finished New Mexico's season-opening 1-0 victory over Pittsburgh Riverhounds on March 9. He hasn't played since.

A leg injury has forced Ryden to do his usual defensive assessments from the sideline. The good news? He likes what he's seen.

"It's great. We're on the top of the (USL Championship) Western Conference," Ryden said. "Depth is the reason why. Everyone on this roster is a starter and everyone has done a great job playing their role."

If you sense, a "but" coming, Ryden delivered.

"I'm not used to this," the 33-year-old center back added. "This has been the lengthiest injury of my career. I'm proud of the guys and the way they've played, but I'm obviously excited to get back out there."

Ryden's return could happen Saturday when United hosts Hartford Athletic at Isotopes Park. As usual, NMU coach Eric Quill played his lineup plans close to the vest, but he said getting experienced players such as Ryden, Harry Swartz and Abu Danladi back from injury is a good problem to have.

"First, it escalates training," Quill said. "The competition level at training has been outstanding this week, and getting top players back makes it that much better. It also makes for some tough decisions when we set the lineup, but I welcome that. We're excited to have these guys available."

United will be looking to bounce back from a frustrating 1-0 loss at Monterey Bay on Sunday, one which snapped a three-game USLC winning streak. NMU came up empty despite earning a pair of second-half penalty kicks, neither of which found the net. New Mexico is a woeful 1-for-5 from the spot this season, and Quill admitted the club has been weighing its options on future attempts.

"I don't think any of my teams had ever missed two PKs in a game," Quill said. "That's something we have to work out."

Four players have attempted penalty kicks for United this season, as Quill said he typically goes with the hot hand instead of designating a person to take the shots. That could change, however, particularly with NMU facing a U.S. Open Cup match quarterfinal in Los Angeles next month. Unlike regular-season USLC matches, Open Cup contests require a winner and can be decided by a shootout if the score is tied after overtime.

"Greg Hurst is probably our guy to take them," Quill said. "But if he's not in the game, we have to figure out if we want to change our philosophy and designate someone. We're still debating that."

Regardless of whether any penalties are called, Quill wants to see his team get back on track Saturday. United has been flawless (6-0-0 in all competitions) at home this season, while Hartford is just 1-5-1 in its last seven matches after a strong start.

"Hartford has a lot of firepower," Quill said. "They have good team speed and athleticism, they're a dynamic attacking team and they'll look to counter quickly. It's important for us to use the elements to our advantage, get the first goal and get our fans on their feet, don't let (Hartford) settle in."

Ryden agreed — adding that he hopes to see things from an on-field perspective.

"Obviously, I'm excited to be involved," he said, "hopefully this weekend. It's just a different emotion when you're playing in front of our fans. I'm excited to experience that again."

Players to watch

Hartford (4-6-1): Some impressive pieces have not created a productive attack for Athletic, which is tied for last in the USL Championship with 11 goals scored in 11 matches. Hartford's 9.7% conversion rate also is worst in the league. Still, Athletic's front line features some talented and familiar faces for New Mexico fans. Among them are Romario Williams, who played for NMU in 2022, and former Colorado Springs Swithchbacks standouts Michee Ngalina and Deshane Beckford. Ngalina was a particular thorn in NMU's side, scoring 20 goals for Colorado Springs in 2021-22. He leads Hartford this season with three goals and 24 shots. Williams and Beckford have netted two goals apiece and have combined for 32 shots. Former San Antonio/Phoenix sniper Marcus Epps also is a regular for Athletic this season with a goal and two assists so far.

New Mexico (7-3-1): With regulars Zico Bailey and Dayonn Harris away from the club on international call-ups, Saturday's match could provide something of a throwback opportunity for United. Veterans and fan favorites Harry Swartz and Kalen Ryden, who have been battling injuries, are fully recovered and available for selection against Hartford. Swartz, who has made six appearances this season, has seen limited minutes off the bench in two recent matches but could be ready for more against his former club. Ryden has not played since NMU's season opener but has completed two weeks of full training and could provide a boost to the back line. Midfielder Nannan Houssou has seen his role increase of late and could be a key contributor with Bailey and Harris unavailable.

NOTEWORTHY: Hartford's back line has been vulnerable this season, conceding 22 goals (tied for third most in the USLC). Goalkeeper Paul Walters, who leads the club with 21 saves and two clean sheets, recently was recalled by MLS FC Cincinnati. ... New Mexico goalkeeper Alex Tambakis is approaching a significant milestone — 200 USLC appearances. Saturday would be his 199th league appearance.