United faces defending USLC champs in Phoenix

Mar. 29—Some performances can leave a team (and its fans) feeling a little bit queasy. New Mexico United experienced just such an outing last week.

United came out on the losing end of a 4-0 romp in Charleston, South Carolina that left a nasty taste in the mouths of coach Eric Quill and his players.

"We didn't give enough of ourselves," Quill said Thursday. "Our fans don't deserve to watch a performance like that. We have to make sure it doesn't happen again."

United will have an opportunity to rinse away any remaining sour taste Saturday night when it visits rival Phoenix Rising FC for an 8:30 p.m. Mountain Time start. Quill was confident his club would be in better spirits and better health.

No excuses was the prevailing theme of NMU's weekly media conference — even though the club had a legitimate a reason for its less-than-healthy showing. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis was one of several players battling a bout of stomach flu during United's trip to Charleston. Tambakis did not play while others were at less than 100%.

Quill said United, "tried to band-aid our way through it," but added he was not satisfied with his team's performance. Defender Arturo Astorga agreed.

"It's difficult when the team is not 100%," Astorga said, "but like Eric said, no excuses. We have to go out and set the pace. We didn't do that (in Charleston)."

Saturday's contest wraps up a challenging March schedule for United, one that includes three straight road matches — the final two against teams that played in last season's USL Championship title match. Phoenix and Charleston battled to a 1-1 draw with Rising FC ultimately winning 3-2 on penalties.

Rising FC's roster has since changed and the club is off to a slow start in 2024 with a 1-2-0 record and just one goal scored. But Quill pointed out that Phoenix has a solid core returning from last season's championship run.

"They're the defending champs for a reason," he said. "I don't put too much stock in the first three games because there's a lot of quality on that roster. They've shown a few chinks in their armor and hopefully we'll be able to take advantage of those, but I'm honestly not as worried about what they're doing as I am about us and how we play."

United and Rising FC have made a habit of playing close, physical contests and developed an intense rivalry. The teams met three times each of the past two seasons with U.S. Open Cup matches included. United won two of three meetings in 2023, including a 2-1 October victory in Arizona that helped NMU secure a playoff spot.

Quill said he won't be surprised if Rising FC tries to take a page out of Charleston's book on Saturday. Battery FC gave United fits with intense pressure that largely kept New Mexico bottled up in its own end of the field for long stretches.

"Teams see that and they'll probably do the same thing," Quill said. "We have to expect that. But we have a roster built to beat teams that press us. We just have to execute better against it."

Astorga said NMU is eager for a chance to put last week's sluggish performance in the rear view mirror.

"It's hard after a loss like that," he said. "You have to get that confidence back. But I like what I've seen this week and this is a good bounce-back opportunity for us against the defending champs. We're ready to show our fans what we can do."

Players to watch

New Mexico (1-1-1): United's lineup figures to change a bit after last week's loss to Charleston due to improved health and in hopes of finding a spark. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis was among several NMU players afflicted by the flu last week and he's likely to return after sitting out at Charleston. Tambakis ranks third in the USL Championship with 11 saves despite having played just two matches. On the attacking end, New Mexico generated little against Charleston but did get a second-half boost from Dayonn Harris, who leads the club with four chances created and shares the team lead with three shots. Harris has made just one start. One more shot of good news arrived for NMU last week when sparkplug midfielder Daniel Bruce made his season debut off the bench after missing two matches with a lower body injury.

Phoenix (1-2-0): Rising FC has a number of familiar faces back after its run to last season's USLC Championship. The attacking line returns dangerous scorers Dariusz Formela, Panos Armenakas, Juan Azocar and Edgarto Rito, who have combined for 17 shots already this season. Formela cashed in Phoenix's lone goal last week in a 1-0 win over Oakland. The good news for United and its fans is that standout striker Danny Trejo is no longer with Rising FC. Trejo, who netted a team-best 19 goals in 2023, signed on with a Polish club during the offseason. Still, Phoenix is a tough side to beat, especially at home. Its defense has allowed just two goals and goalkeeper Rocco Rios Novo has faced just nine shots thus far, stopping seven of them. Defender Pape Boye has made an impact in his first season with 16 clearances and 16 duels won.

NOTEWORTHY: New Mexico-Phoenix matches have a reputation for being physical and Saturday's is likely to be no exception. Both teams rank among the league leaders in fouls conceded, fouls won and yellow cards (NMU is second with 11, Phoenix has 9). ... United will again be missing three players — Kalen Ryden, Cristian Nava and Abu Dinladi — who are recovering from lower body injuries.