Oakland Roots will face off against New Mexico United tonight, March 30, at 6:00 p.m. PST, at New Mexico’s Isotopes Park in Albuquerque, which you can catch on ESPN+ or KTVU Plus.
This is New Mexico’s fourth season in USL. Conveniently, since I did not have time on the short week to write a full-on preview, the Roots played New Mexico last year. You can find my series of for-me-above-average riffs on New Mexico’s kit, park, badge, etc. here.
New Mexico went 12-10-10 last season, with a +4 goal differential (LAG2 and Tulsa had more even GDs, but neither had 10(!) draws), making them surely the averagest team in the league. They missed the playoffs by a single excruciating point, which can only have hurt more when RGV, who got that seed, knocked off Phoenix in Phoenix. New Mexico’s leading goalscorer with 10 was Chris Wehan, who joined the team on August 18, just in time for a 30-minute debut cameo against the Roots.
New Mexico had a good off-season, not losing anyone particularly noteworthy, and adding Neco Brett, who netted 18 times for Pittsburgh last season, and 9 times for Pittsburg in the shortened 2020 season. John Morrissey had New Mexico pre-season as a playoff lock, and their 2-1-0 start cannot have shaken that.
New Mexico started their season off with a 2-0 win over Las Vegas Lights at “the Lab”, as Isotopes Park is known, before we knew that Lights were going to actually do things (so far) this season. Harry Swartz’s opener was a completely unopposed header on a free kick. Swartz is well past the goal and heads it back in a way that is… worryingly like something Roots would have given up against MBFC. Neco Brett doubles the lead in the 49th, tapping in a [you guessed it] header back across the box from a set piece. This is not what I hoped to see when I sat down to watch these highlights.
New Mexico then beat El Paso 1-0 in El Paso. Things started brightly for El Paso completely unlocking New Mexico’s defense with a breakaway down the right flank and a strong pass into the box for an easy finish in stride. In the 32nd, Neco Brett leveled on a brilliant bit of striking. NM keeper Tambakis played the ball long, but a great header from Daniel Bruce from the far right flank bounces over the ELP backline, and Brett straight-up outruns both defenders before chipping the keeper from the edge of the 18-yard-box. El Paso took the lead in the 66th on an awful play from the ELP defense. The ball is passed back to the keeper under pretty significant pressure, and he calmly plays a ball forwards like he doesn’t even see NM-midfielder Justin Portillo between him and his target. El Paso’s left-sided centerback does see that the pass is going to get intercepted, but instead of running forward to force Tabort Etaka offside, he runs backwards to take up space in the goal, which means Portillo’s pass finds Tabort Etaka in acres of space, but well onside, in the El Paso box and 5-6 yards past the nearest defender. Tabort Etaka has to shoot quickly with the keeper coming out to stop him, but he calmly slides it between the keeper and the centerback (now on the goal line).
This past weekend, New Mexico returned to Albuquerque and drew reigning champion Orange County 1-1. The teams were pretty evenly matched throughout. New Mexico opened the scoring in the 78th when right winger Daniel Bruce put a perfect cross in across goal to find Harry Swartz for the easy header at the back post. Swartz had to go almost all the way to ground to head the ball, I think it must have dropped more than he expected when he committed to the low header, but you can’t complain when it finds the back of the net. Orange County forced a great save from Alex Tambakis 12 seconds into second-half stoppage time. That was the warning for New Mexico–on the resulting corner kick Erick Torres nodded the corner down into the scrum and Milan Iloski got the header in from the goal line. He then picked up a yellow for running to the NM supporters section to taunt them. Incredible stuff.
Players to Watch
I am completely out of time to write this. Neco Brett wears #7 and he is likely to be a thorn in Oakland’s side.
Daniel Bruce at right wing wears 25 and looked a lot better against Orange County than a 5’1″ British winger has any right to be. Morrissey (not that one) says that #6 Souahy at left-sided centerback is really good.
Lineup and Score Predictions
Aaron convinced me, and I convinced myself, on this week’s RootsPod that the Roots’ defense isn’t as bad as the goals conceded suggests, except for set pieces, and the Roots’ offense is improving week over week. Unfortunately, New Mexico has some success on set pieces. I think the Roots are noticeably better than the first two weeks, and luckier than against Monterey Bay, but NMU are good: 2-2 draw.
We were intimated about some big lineup changes, so my guess is a new combination in the midfield. Joseph Nane and Matias Fissore pair for a stronger backline and enable Edgardo Rito and Akeem Ward to press forward. Jose Hernandez features in a more similar role to last season, while Lindo Mfeka gets his
second consecutive start on the right wing.
So you’ve been having some trouble building up through the middle, and what you have tried has left you a little vulnerable at the back? Try RootsBlog’s magic formation change potion! Do we have any indication that Guerra wants to use a back 3? We do not! But if you want to make use of the wide areas while not surrendering the middle of the park, one possible adjustment is to switch to a back 3, which is geared towards using width, but also allows you to create overloads in the midfield. Plus, its an out-of-left-field move that would force New Mexico to have to adjust on the fly. New Mexico 2-2 Oakland.