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MLS in Albuquerque: United set to face talented Real Salt Lake

May 7—Wednesday, U.S. Open Cup, 7 p.m., 101.7 FM, ussoccer.com (streaming)

Underdog motivational mantras are more than a bit overused these days.

New Mexico United could hardly be blamed for resorting to such tactics Wednesday night.

United will absolutely be the underdog when MLS Western Conference leader Real Salt Lake rolls into Isotopes Park for a U.S. Open Cup battle. Not only are the visitors coming in hot (5-0-2 in their last seven MLS outings with four clean sheets), but the home team is still a licking a variety of wounds.

"Well, we had a guy who just signed a 25-day contract and two academy contract players on our (18-man roster) Saturday," United coach Eric Quill said. "So, no, we're not 100%."

Does that mean it's time to break out the, "No one's giving us a chance," or "We're being disrespected!" outrage? Perhaps, but United players and coaches prefer to simply embrace the underdog role.

"Our guys are excited about it," Quill said Tuesday. "This is a chance to showcase themselves against a quality MLS opponent and the pressure's not on us. We're off to a good start (5-2-1 against USL Championship competition) and guys are feeling good about themselves. They're ready to give it their best shot."

Quill said he will not approach Wednesday's game with an eye toward Saturday's USLC match against Oakland Roots SC. He plans to go with his best lineup — or best-available lineup, as the case may be.

New Mexico was without several regulars against Las Vegas and only one, midfielder Sergio Rivas, is likely to return Wednesday. Kalen Ryden, Harry Swartz, Will Seymore and Abu Danladi are still battling injuries.

Still, annual upsets are part of the allure of Open Cup play, and New Mexico would love nothing better than to pull one off in front of its home fans.

"It's a different format, win or go home," forward Greg Hurst said, "but that's part of what makes this tournament fun. We know we're up against a quality side and we have to be in top form, but we like the challenge of being the underdog. We look forward to it."

Part of the challenge will be dealing with Real Salt Lake's speed, which Quill said may the most notable difference between the two clubs.

"Salt Lake's team speed is eye-popping," he said. "Their pace, their first step is top-notch at every position. Physically, they're really impressive."

United cannot match RSL step for step, but that does not mean NMU will fall back and play in a defensive shell, Quill said.

"No, I don't want to just absorb," he said. "We've got to play quick, be locked in, be clean on one or two touches and try to capitalize on them. They've got really good one-(versus)-one defenders on the outside. If we try to hold too much possession or don't play with enough pace, we'll get suffocated."

United will also look to avoid a slow start, something that came back to bite Quill's team in each of its two losses this season (4-0 at Charleston and 3-0 at Tampa Bay). New Mexico is 5-0-1 when it scores first this season.

Early success could also help energize United's home crowd, and the underdogs will gladly take any advantage they can get.

"Playing an in-form MLS side will certainly be a test," Daniel Bruce said, "but we welcome it and welcome being the underdog."

Players to watch

Salt Lake (6-2-3 MLS): Whether RSL fields its usual lineup for this Open Cup matchup remains to be seen. Assuming such, Salt Lake's roster is formidable. Colombian striker Chicho Arango is off to a sizzling start this season with nine goals and seven assists. He's also attempted 45 shots — 21 more than anyone else on the club. United fans may see one familiar face suited up for RSL in former El Paso Locomotive star Diego Luna. After tormenting USL Championship foes to the tune of 41 goals from 2021-22, Luna signed a record deal to play with Salt Lake and performed up to expectations. He has a goal and five assists in MLS competition so far this season.

New Mexico (5-2-1 USLC): United has simply found ways to win through a difficult stretch this season. Both the attack and the back line have been hot and cold, but each has come up with big performances at times. NMU will need a more consistent outing on both ends against a top-quality Real Salt Lake side. Daniel Bruce netted a pair of goals in last week's 2-1 win at Las Vegas, but United missed numerous early chances to add more. Greg Hurst, Dayonn Harris and Mukwelle Akale will need to cash in quickly if opportunities arise Wednesday. United's back line stood tall in the second half at Las Vegas, making a 2-1 lead stand up. Talen Maples continues to excel in the absence of injured Kalen Ryden.

NOTEWORTHY: Wednesday's match will be New Mexico's first at home against an MLS opponent, but United held its own against the top American tier in the previous meetings on the road. NMU knocked off two MLS foes (FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids) in the 2019 U.S. Open Cup before falling to Minnesota United in the quarterfinals. United was knocked out of last season's tournament by MLS Austin FC.