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The Hunted: United looks to protect conference lead at Monterey Bay

Jun. 1—Sunday, 5 p.m., 101.7 FM, CBSSportsGolazo (streaming), Estrella TV

Getting to the top of the USL Championship Western Conference standings was difficult. Staying on top will be much tougher.

That's the reality New Mexico United (7-2-1) faces heading into Sunday's road match against Monterey Bay FC. Coming off a terrific month of May (5-0-0 in all competitions), NMU starts June playing the role of the hunted.

The trick, according to coach Eric Quill and his players, is to keep playing with the same chip on their collective shoulder that sparked the team's run to the top.

"We have to keep that hungry mentality," defender Avionne Flanagan said. "We're at the top and everyone will be looking to take us down. We have to expect that."

Quill agreed, pointing out that more than two thirds of the USLC's regular season remain to be played.

"We've been on a good run and it's exciting, but it's also a great challenge for us," Quill said. "We'll see who we are and see if we can stay at the top of the table."

Challenger No. 1 will be Monterey Bay FC (4-5-4) which is trying to shake off a winless and injury plagued May. MBFC is coming off a 0-0 draw against Eastern Conference leader Charleston on Wednesday night — the same Charleston Battery that clobbered United 4-0 on March 23.

"Monterey Bay is a well-coached team, always dynamic and they can break you down," Quill said. "They've got a great home crowd and they're a dynamic team. It's up to us to impose our style and try to come away with three points."

If New Mexico's pattern holds, that would mean another close match. United has been at its best in tight situations this season, with all seven of its USLC wins coming by one-goal decisions.

While NMU's attack has been a collective effort, the back line has been steady and generally effective. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis has been solid in his nine USLC appearances, making 24 saves with two clean sheets and 11 goals conceded. He's also received considerable support — including from midfielder Nicky Hernandez, who headed a potential goal off the line against San Antonio.

"This is one of the best teams I've been on, for sure," said the veteran Tambakis. "We feel good, but we have to stay focused. We want to win a trophy at the end of the season. That's what we're all playing for."

TRENDING POSITIVE: New Mexico has averaged roughly five players on its weekly injury list of late, but Quill said those numbers are likely to decrease in the near future. Midfielder Harry Swartz is expected to be fully available Sunday. Others who have been out for several weeks — Kalen Ryden, Will Seymore, Abu Danladi — are back to full training and building endurance, Quill said. Midfielder Sergio Rivas (lower body) is not yet back to full training, while forward Cristian Nava (ACL) is out for the season.

OPEN EXCURSION: New Mexico United is offering a fan-experience package for its U.S. Open Cup quarterfinal match at MLS LAFC on July 10. The United for the Cup Fan Membership Package, which includes round-trip airfare on a chartered flight to Los Angeles, goes on sale Wednesday (June 5) at noon. It is limited to the first 100 fans.

The $250 package includes a ticket to the match at BMO Stadium and a gift bag along with a seat on the July 9 flight to Los Angeles and the return flight on July 11. United's players and coaches will be on the same flights with departure times to be announced soon. The package does not include hotel accommodations. More information is available on the team's website, newmexicoutd.com.

Players to watch

New Mexico (7-2-1): United is competing in the only USL Championship match of the day at Monterey Bay, but which player will take top billing? It's been increasingly tough to predict as 14 players have scored over all of NMU's competitions. Nannan Houssou b Sunday, 5 p.m., 101.7 FM, CBSSportsGolazo (streaming), Estrella TV

ecame the latest first-time scorer in New Mexico's 2-1 win over San Antonio FC on May 25. Greg Hurst set up Houssou's strike and earned USLC Goal of the Week honors for his decisive 27-yard blast just before halftime. Hurst leads the club with 16 shots and is tied for 10th in the league with five goals. He's as likely as anyone to come up big Sunday, but the same could be said of Dayonn Harris, who last week received an international call-up to represent Antigua and Barbuda in World Cup qualifying. Harris set up Hurst's winning goal and has 11 chances created this season.

Monterey Bay (4-5-4): MBFC is probably as happy as any club to see the calendar flip to June. After a solid April, Monterey Bay went 0-3-2 in May and was plagued by injuries. Nonetheless, it comes into Sunday's match in third place in the USLC Western Conference and could quickly change its fortunes with a win over New Mexico. MBFC is similar to United in that it has shared the ball effectively. Tristan Trager has a club-best five goals on 19 shots but has missed time because of injury. Nine players have at least one goal in USLC play. One to watch Sunday might be midfielder Mobi Fehr, who has been involved in all aspects of Monterey Bay's attack. Fehr has 2 goals, 2 assists, 15 shots and 13 chances created. Goalkeeper Antony Siaha has played every minute and leads the USLC with 44 saves.

NOTEWORTHY: United will be looking for its first win at Cardinale Stadium, having played to a 1-1 draw there in 2022 (Monterey Bay's first season) and taking a 4-2 road loss early last season. ... MBFC ranks among the league leaders in shot attempts with 152 but has put just 52 on target and is tied for 17th with a 12% conversion rate. New Mexico has put 57 of its 109 shots on target and has a 17% conversion rate.