Aug. 14—Suffice it to say it's been a while.
New Mexico United will end a 13-day break and play just its second match in a three-week span Saturday night when rival El Paso Locomotive FC visits Isotopes Park.
It's a difficult and important matchup for United, which has fallen out of playoff position during its time off the pitch. NMU (6-6-4, 22 points) enters the match in sixth place in the USL Championship's tightly contested Mountain Division but plenty of time remains to do something about that.
New Mexico is well behind first-place El Paso (11-1-4 with a league-best 37 points) but just three points behind third-place Colorado Springs. United is halfway through its 32-match schedule and has played fewer matches than four of its divisional rivals.
Still, there is urgency for coach Troy Lesesne and his players to start building momentum — particularly on the offensive end. NMU has not scored in its last three matches (0-1-2) and is mired in a 308-minute dry spell since its last goal. In part because of its quiet recent schedule, United hasn't put a ball in the net since a 2-1 win over Charleston on July 12.
Breaking the drought against El Paso does not figure to be easy. The Locos have allowed just 10 goals all season and have posted eight clean sheets — both league-best marks. New Mexico and EPFC battled to a scoreless draw in their most recent meeting three weeks ago at Isotopes Park.
"The last game I think was a reflection of us playing El Paso 13 times in three years," Lesesne said. "The best scoring chances were set pieces because we kind of have to be scrappy and think of things that are off the page a little bit. It's going to be like that again this weekend. It's going to be a hard game."
The upside of coming off a long break is United has had time to rest and fine-tune its sputtering attack. Lesesne said his team worked on adding a few new wrinkles but was more focused on building communication and chemistry on the field.
"Clearly we need to have more chance creation and we need to be more dangerous," he said. "We've worked quite a bit on that."
New Mexico's defense has been stingy of late, posting back-to-back shutouts against El Paso and Tacoma, with both matches ending in scoreless draws.
"Pretty solid performances defensively," defender Austin Yearwood said. "Obviously we want to create more chances offensively, like Troy said, but the last two matches were really good building blocks."
United hopes to make the most of a two-match homestand to start the season's second half. New Mexico hosts Oakland Roots SC on Wednesday and has an opportunity to make a quick climb in the divisional race.
"Playing at home with a loud crowd really does give us that extra edge," midfielder Sergio Rivas said. "We're pretty excited about having the next two games here."
Defender David Najem, who recently rejoined United after playing with the club during its 2020 season on the road, agreed.
"I finally get to play in front of our fans," Najem said. "Man, I can't wait."
NOTE: Midfielder Harry Swartz, who has missed six matches with a "lower body" injury, will be available to return to action Saturday, Lesesne said.
GAME DAY: EL PASO LOCOMOTIVE FC AT NEW MEXICO UNITED
Saturday, 7:30 p.m., Isotopes Park, 101.7 FM/ESPN+ (streaming)/Estrella TV
PLAYERS TO WATCH
El Paso (11-1-4): As one might suspect, Locomotive FC has posted impressive
numbers in every department. Forwards Luis Solignac and Diego Luna have combined for 11 goals and six assists to highlight the Locos' attack. But New Mexico fans are more likely to focus on midfielder Yuma Monsalvez. who plays a key role without winning any on-the-field popularity contests. Vocal and demonstrative, Monsalvez was booed steadily during EPFC's July 24 visit to Albuquerque. He leads his team with 973 passes, a 92% accuracy rate and five yellow cards.
New Mexico (6-6-4): New Mexico's attack clearly needs a spark, but the defense has made the most of things with back-to-back clean sheets to stay in the Mountain Division's playoff hunt. Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis and the back line rank fifth in the USL Championship with 18 goals conceded and stand sixth with five shutouts. The recent addition of defender David Najem strengthens a unit that will need to excel against talented El Paso. Tambakis is tied for 11th in the league with 40 saves. Kalen Ryden has a team-best 57 clearances.
NOTEWORTHY: Saturday's match is the last of four between New Mexico and El Paso during this regular season. EPFC won one of the first three. with two ending in draws. The rivals are 2-2-6 in regular and postseason matchups overall. Including preseason matches, they've met 13 times over three seasons. ... United players will sport new black-and-white Meow Wolf jerseys for Saturday's match. ... As of Friday afternoon, roughly 8,500 tickets had been sold for Saturday's match. NMU ranks second in USL average home attendance (8,479 fans) to Louisville (9,741).