May 15—Home cooking can be particularly enticing — provided one doesn’t spill it.
New Mexico United’s long-awaited home opener Saturday night at Isotopes Park has the feel of a celebration. It will be United’s first regular-season appearance in its home state in 574 days, and even players who were around back in 2019 say the wait has seemed even longer.
“I’m beyond excited,” striker and Albuquerque native Devon Sandoval said. “This feels like our first-ever game all over again.”
Granted, the excitement is warranted. Coronavirus restrictions that forced NMU to play exclusively on the road last season have become increasingly relaxed. Roughly 9,000 fans will be allowed to attend Saturday’s match against Austin Bold FC — although fans will still be required to wear face coverings and maintain social distancing, New Mexico United announced Friday.
There’s just one small detail that could potentially throw cold water on Saturday’s soccer party. Coming off its initial two-match road trip at 0-1-1, NMU needs a positive result.
Coach Troy Lesesne and his players said having a large, supportive crowd behind them brings only positive motivation.
“I don’t think ‘pressure’s’ the right word,” defender Kalen Ryden said. “We’re excited. There’s always pressure to perform, but that’s not something you really focus on. We just want to play well and get three points.”
United came away from last week’s match in El Paso frustrated after a Locomotive FC goal late in stoppage time allowed the home team to salvage a 1-1 draw.
Still, Sandoval felt NMU’s play showed a dramatic improvement from the previous week’s 1-0 loss at Rio Grande Valley.
“We started to see progress from our first match to our second match,” Sandoval said. “If we can keep building to this match, I feel pretty good about things.”
Saturday’s contest will be the season opener for Austin Bold FC, which Lesesne conceded makes for a thin scouting report. Austin’s roster had significant turnover during the offseason, forcing Lesesne and his staff to scramble for information.
Oddly enough, United will be facing an opponent making its season debut for a third straight week.
“It’s most challenging this week,” Lesesne said. “We’re obviously very familiar with El Paso and we had some insight into Rio Grande Valley, but there’s not a lot of footage on Austin. It does make it challenging, but, especially this early in the season, we spend more time trying to focus on what we do and trying to improve our execution.”
United had moments of superb execution against El Paso, including when Ryden, Harry Swartz and Sandoval collaborated on a highlight-reel goal that, at the time, gave the visitors a 1-0 lead.
Sandoval, who capped the play with a sliding shot into an open net, believes a little home cooking could help produce more United highlights Saturday night.
“We feel the fans throughout the whole game,” Sandoval said. “We feel their energy and it just gives us that extra push. It’ll be so nice to finally have that again.”
AUSTIN BOLD FC (0-0-0) at NEW MEXICO UNITED (0-1-1), 7:30 p.m., 101.7 FM/Estrella TV (UHF 7.2, Comcast 386)/ESPN+ (streaming)
TICKETS: Walk-up sales will be available. Isotopes Park gates open at 6 p.m. Face coverings are required.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
United: Goalkeeper Alex Tambakis has been impressive in his first two matches. He ranks sixth in the USL Championship with six saves and has made several eye-catching plays to break up opposing scoring threats. The native of Athens, Greece, has filled in well after Cody Mizell’s offseason departure to MLS. … Albuquerque’s Devon Sandoval is once again a focal point of United’s offense. He converted the team’s first goal of 2021 at El Paso and nearly cashed in a second opportunity.
Austin Bold: The team’s 2021 roster features some significant additions, particularly along its revamped front line. Forward Sean Okoli, who played for Orange County SC in 2020, is the most notable newcomer. Okoli, who has played for several MLS sides, was named USL MVP in 2016 after scoring a league-best 16 goals for FC Cincinnati. Austin’s 2020 goalkeeper, Diego Restrepo, retired, leaving newcomers Hugo Faoroux (France) and Arshia Babazadeh (Iran) as potential replacements.
Austin Bold will be trying to defeat New Mexico in a season opener for the second straight year. Andre Lima’s penalty kick in the 52nd minute gave Austin a 1-0 victory in 2020’s meeting prior to a four-month suspension of USL Championship play because of the coronavirus pandemic. United went 1-0-1 against Austin in 2019, with the teams playing to a 2-2 draw at Isotopes Park.