Phoenix Rising FC travel to Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, New Mexico to play New Mexico United on Saturday, September 28, 2019. It is the second and final USL Championship regular season match-up of the year between these two clubs who have quickly become rivals in spite of this being New Mexico's expansion season. Phoenix comes into the match having had their 20-game-winning-streak snapped by Fresno FC last Saturday. In spite of the loss, they are still 15 points clear of Fresno in 1st place, and have already clinched the conference title. Even earning a single point against New Mexico will be enough to clinch the best overall record in the league after Indy Eleven. New Mexico currently sit 8th in the table, and have had an eventful first season to say the least. It started fast and saw them on top of the Western Conference table early on, before stumbling mid-season, and are now fighting for their playoff lives. The season also saw them make a deep run into the U.S. Open Cup, which likely contributed to their summer struggles with the additional games, and a short bench.
Looking at New Mexico's form over the past 5 games, its has seen them lose 3 of those by multiple goals to surging clubs San Antonio FC and Orange County SC, as well as 3rd place Reno 1868 FC. Sandwiched between the 3 losses they had a pair of victories over bottom table clubs OKC Energy FC and Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC. Based on those results, 8th place seems as if it might be right around where they should finish up. Their unimpressive +1 goal differential on the season solidifies that notion. In other words, they are better than the bad teams, but not quite in line with the top clubs. Ultimately, as an expansion team they are still building a roster, and they are heavily reliant on players like Kevaugh Frater and Santi Moar for scoring. That will be further exposed on Saturday with Moar serving a suspension. It should be noted however the Devon Sandoval has been the hot hand of late, having scored 5 goals in the past 3 matches, after scoring just 4 goals all season prior to that.
New Mexico United vs Phoenix Rising Vital Information
Referee assignments have the referee as Michael Radchuk, with Diego Blas and Kevin Lock as the assistants, and Marc Laws as the 4th official. On the discipline report, Moar is suspended due to yellow card accumulation, however Frater was removed from the caution list this week for "Good Behavior". Phoenix has Kevon Lambert, and New Mexico has both Juan Guzman and Ryan Williams under caution, and the a booking for any of these players tonight will result in a one-game-suspension.
This will be the 3rd meeting all-time between the New Mexico United and Phoenix Rising. In the previous 2 meetings, Phoenix has won 0 times, New Mexico has won 1 time, and there has been 1 draw. It was a 3-3 draw at Casino Arizona Field in Arizona the last time that they met in league play on March 16, 2019. However, their most recent meeting was in the U.S. Open Cup on May 15, 2019. That match finished 2-2, and then ended up going all the way to penalties, eventually being won 2(4) - 2(3) over Phoenix. In other words, New Mexico has been quite the thorn in the side of Phoenix's dream season, and there will be no lack of motivation for them on Saturday. I had a chance to briefly meet with a number of Phoenix Rising players at the players at the Pints and Players event on Thursday, and I must say that every last one them got an extra bit of gleam in their eye when I asked if they were ready for New Mexico.
Five Points That Shouldn’t be Overlooked
This is also a pivotal match in the inaugural Four Corners Cup competition. This is New Mexico's 6th and final match in the contest, and they sit atop the table with 10 points. A win tonight would give them 13 points, and clinch the Cup in their favor. Phoenix currently sits on 8 points, but with a game in hand on both New Mexico and Real Monarchs (2nd with 9 points). A win by Phoenix tonight would vault them to the top of the table with 11 points, and mean they would need only a draw on October 12, 2019 against Real Monarchs to claim the trophy. If tonight's match were to end in a draw, then Phoenix would be at 9 points, and New Mexico at 11. In this scenario, a win by either Phoenix or Real Monarchs on the 12th would give them the title, or if they were to draw, then it would be New Mexico taking home the Cup.
Frater leads New Mexico in scoring with 14 goals, but as mentioned above, they will be without their 2nd leading scorer Moar, who has 11 goals. Sandoval now has 9, which puts him 3rd on their scoring list, and Chris Wehan with 8 goals round out their "Big 4". That is no doubt a formidable quartet, but once you get beyond those 4, no one else on the team has more than 2 goals. They also have just 7 players with 2 or more goals, and 10 total players who have scored for them this season. By comparison, Phoenix has 6 players with 3 or more goals, a ridiculous 12 players with 2 or more goals, and 14 total scorers. Given the top heaviness of their roster, it's not surprising that playing 3 extra games in the Open Cup not only put a hamper on their form. That being said, with a few more pieces they are likely to be a forced to be reckoned with next season.
Taking a look at the betting line, we have further evidence that last week's line was anomaly the correctly predicted the end of the streak. In spite of this being a road match against a team that has given them trouble in their own building, Phoenix finds themselves in the familiar favored position. I wouldn't call them heavy favorites though, and that is because at +130 you can still get better than even money betting on a Phoenix win. At +210 New Mexico is looking pretty tasty as well as at just more than 2 to 1 it is a genuine underdogs payout. In other words, either one of these lines would look pretty attractive to a perspective bettor. That turns our eye to the draw which at +190 is an unusually low number considering that draws almost always pay out at better than 2 to 1. What all of this tells me is that the oddsmakers are trying to get a good amount of action place on both sides because they are anticipating having to pay out on the draw.
While I covered New Mexico's top heavy offense, their 52 goals scored still has them tied for the 6th best total in the conference. Their biggest problems are on defense, where their 51 goals allowed are the most allowed by any team in the top 8, and the 3rd most of any team that is currently in the top 14. Goalkeeper Cody Mizell is tied for 6th in the league with 78 saves. Of course that is not a list you usually get to the top of if you have an elite defense in front of you. He is sporting a middling 60.5% save percentage, which is well below his career average of 66.4%, thus suggesting that he is facing a good number of high quality attempts. He has just 3 clean sheets in 29 starts, by comparison he had 4 clean sheets in just 15 starts, and a 65% save percentage while playing with Tampa Bay Rowdies last year. Looking at these numbers it is clear that New Mexico's biggest need this offseason will be to solidify their back line. They have had a fairly regular back line with with Justin Schmidt, Rashid Tetteh, Josh Suggs, and Manny Padilla all starting at least 19, and as many as 25 of their 29 matches. In their most recent match Ethen Sampson started at left back over Suggs, which was his 9th start of the year. Ryan Williams has started 10 games this year, and that is all 6 players on their roster who are listed as defense. There are some encouraging stats such as 5 assists for Padilla shows an ability to move the ball forward, and solid numbers in categories like tackles and interceptions show that Tetteh is a very active player in the backfield. Ultimately though, this unit needs to get better and deeper if New Mexico is to become a legit contender.
To wrap this up, I just wanted to give a hand to every member of the Phoenix Rising, players, coaching staff, and management, who all played a part in putting together the most amazing winning streak in U.S. soccer history. The amount of focus and determination that it takes to step onto the pitch and walk off a winner 20 times in-a-row is something that in unparalleled in any group of athletes I have witnessed. Not only that, but to finally fall, but do it it going down swinging, and giving Fresno and C.J. Cochran everything they could handle and more in the waning moments of that contest is the fire that forges the metal that Champions are made of. Thanks for the amazing ride Phoenix Rising, and now on to bigger and better things like wielding the ultimate piece of forged metal that is the USL Championship Trophy.
New Mexico United vs Phoenix Rising Prediction
Realistically, I could pick 3-1 or 2-0 every week and get these right a lot more often, but what fun is that. If you fancy going what the oddsmakers are liking, or more accurately not wanting you to bet on, then it seems as if a draw would be the pick. However, the oddsmakers didn't see the gleam in the eye of the players I did on Thursday night who I know have revenge on their mind and don't plan on leaving Albuquerque with anything less than 3 points. Expect this to be a high flying affair and the most entertaining game of the year, while this certainly has the looks of one that could end up 3-3, I think tonight it will be Phoenix Rising with a Crescit Eundo of scoring in the Land of Enchantment.
Prediction: Phoenix Rising - 5 New Mexico United - 2