It’s been a while since we’ve made the trip up north to visit New Mexico United. We’ve gotten so used to inviting them down to Southwest University Park, I wonder if we will remember how to get to Isotopes Park. While we figure that one out, here is the rundown on Saturday’s game:
MATCH DETAILS: USL Championship Regular Season Game #12; at New Mexico United; 7:30 p.m. MT kickoff
VENUE/WEATHER: Isotopes Park; Albuquerque, New Mexico; -- degrees.
WATCH PARTY: Flip's (1071 Country Club Road)
RECORDS/STANDINGS: Locomotive: 7-1-3 (24 points, MTN-1); United: 6-6-2 (20 points, MTN-3)
PREVIOUS MEETING: Locomotive crushed New Mexico United’s hopes of walking away with points in hand the last time the two met. Brian Brown opened the scoring for New Mexico United just before the close of the first half at Southwest University Park only to have the lead undone by a pair of goals in rapid succession by Midfielder Dylan Mares. The brace by Mares set Locomotive to claim all three points and continue the impressive home undefeated streak it has set up.
Have I mentioned this one before? It feels like I’ve mentioned this one before. Even if I have, let me re-emphasize the depth that Head Coach Mark Lowry has set up within the Locomotive squad. Last Saturday, Locomotive fans saw a different lineup with Goalkeeper Ben Beaury making his debut, Forward Ricardo Zacarias fitting into the right-back position, Midfielder Chapa Herrera making another appearance in the Starting XI, and Midfielder Sebastian Velasquez leading the attack alongside Forward Lucho Solignac. The point is, no matter who Coach Lowry puts on the field or in what position, you know they’re going to show up and they will perform with everything they have. Sure, it might be a little rough around the edges, but you can’t argue with results, especially if those results are another win and set of three points for the table. Locomotive has three games to play in this upcoming week and with a few guys still questionable in availability because of small injuries, that ‘Next Man Up’ will become crucial to keep the win streak going.
If there is one thing that the Boys in Blue don’t do, it's take a loss lightly. Since falling on the road to Rio Grande Valley FC, the guys in the Locomotive locker room have bounced back and gone on to take all three points in their following three matches. It started with welcoming New Mexico United to Southwest University Park, conceding a goal just before the halftime whistle. Staying with the theme of resiliency, Locomotive rallied behind two goals from Dylan Mares in rapid succession to claim the 2-1 win. Next, El Paso Locomotive traveled to Utah to take on Real Monarchs at a stadium that traditionally is difficult to play. Los Locos kept momentum on their side, securing a 3-1 win with goals from all three of the club’s goal leaders, Lucho Solignac, Diego Luna, and Aaron Gomez. Most recently, Locomotive held on to all three points at home against Las Vegas Lights FC. Ben Beaury made his debut in goal to earn a clean sheet with two massive saves while Aaron Gomez found his third goal of the season in to earn Locomotive’s third straight win. The three wins in a row are a 2021 best for El Paso and one game shy of matching a club best win streak of four games set in 2020.
Our Mountain Division rivals to the north have not been in the best of shape as of late as the club has been shaky at best with how they look on the pitch. In their last six games, New Mexico United has only picked up six points of the possible 18. The Road Warriors slipped away from home, dropping the lead in three consecutive games against Colorado Springs Switchbacks, Real Monarchs, and your very own Locomotive FC. Switchbacks and Real Monarchs were able to provide three unanswered goals to nix 1-0 and 2-0 leads respectively to keep United out of the win column at their own home stadiums. Locomotive closed out the three-game road skid for United with two unanswered goals of their own to ruin United’s 1-0 lead at the halftime break. New Mexico recovered at Isotopes Park with a pair of wins against Switchbacks and Charleston Battery, however, the Albuquerque side fell once again on the road when it visited San Antonio FC on Wednesday, being shutout out, 3-0. Two wins in your last six games leaves a lot to be desired, but those two wins came while at home, meaning that while United is shaky at best, they are a dangerous club on their own field.
Okay, now this one, I admit I have been beating into the ground, but that’s because of the drama! The tension! We are rapidly approaching the halfway point of the 2021 season, and there are effectively six teams vying for four spots above the playoff line. Only 7 points separate Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC from El Paso Locomotive at the top of the table. The Mountain Division truly feels like it is up for grabs for anyone in the group. That makes the intra-Division matches that much more exciting as they provide critical opportunities to swing points away from the teams around you while bringing them into your own record. With a four-point gap between El Paso and New Mexico, Saturday’s contest could have a lot of implications come playoff push time at the end of the season. A win for El Paso provides it an opportunity to push away from Rio Grande Valley FC at the top of the table while a win for New Mexico would bring the two Texas clubs within a point, provided RGV drops points this weekend as well. At this rate, I have no doubt the final few weeks of the USL Championship season will be a nail-biter for who will secure playoff spots and home advantages, but I am here for the ride all season long.
When you’re at the top of your division, you’re a shoe-in to be sitting at the top of the league overall. 11 games in and Head Coach Mark Lowry and his squad have claimed 24 points from their opponents. With results around the league a third of the way in, the 24 points put El Paso 4th overall heading into the weekend, only being topped by Tampa Bay Rowdies (24 points), Louisville City FC (26 points), and Phoenix Rising FC (26 points). Locomotive holds the distinct advantage of having played fewer games so Lowry and the Boys in Blue are in complete control of their own destiny when it comes to not only topping the Mountain Division but to top the league and put to rest any doubts that they are the best team in the league.