Tiers for Fears: New Mexico United & the Underdog Switcheroo

New Mexico United go from favorites to underdogs in the Round of 32 – hoping to spark off a deep Open Cup run like the one they had in 2019 when they take on MLS’ Real Salt Lake.
By: Dan Vaughn

Every knockout competition is about the matchup.

A team can be in the right form, cruising, but meet the wrong team at the wrong time and make a quick exit from the competition. It’s even more dangerous in a tournament – like our U.S. Open Cup – where clubs are coming from different leagues and different levels of competition.

Things get complicated quick when amateurs meet pros, whose day-job consists of playing the game, or when lower-level pro teams take on upper-tier opponents. “Pressure is always on against the lower division teams,” said Eric Quill, head coach of second-division USL Championship pros New Mexico United. “They come in with so much desire.”

First Favorites, Then Underdogs

In the Third Round of the US Open Cup, the New Mexicans entered against all-amateur underdogs the Lubbock Matadors of the National Premier Soccer League (NPSL). After a tough first half where neither team got a ball into the net, New Mexico United found a foothold and scored three goals in a frenzied four minutes early in the second half.

Going up by three meant they could cruise through the rest of the half. But Coach Quill acknowledged that the part-timers from Lubbock were up to the challenge. “There’s no such thing as an easy game. We don’t take any opponent lightly,” he said of a game that was both an opportunity and a potential embarrassment for the favorites from Albuquerque. “They had a lot of quality, some kids that could play.”

Midfielder Daniel Bruce was also eager to respect the amateur players that gave his pro side all they could handle for more than a full half of play. “A lot of those players are very good, technical players,” he said. “Don’t respect them and they’ll hurt you…I was really proud of our performance in that match.”

Getting the win against an underdog might be the expected result, but now New Mexico United transform – as if by Open Cup Magic – into the underdog themselves when they take on Real Salt Lake. It’s the nature of the competition and Quill is happy to wear the label. You can hear it in his voice as he looks ahead to the Round of 32 contest against the 2009 MLS Champions and 2013 Open Cup Runners-up.

Up Against MLS

“MLS sides are always heavy favorites,” the coach said. “The underdog is a title we’ll take. Knockout soccer is like nothing else. Mistakes are more magnified and the anxiety is higher. It’s win or go home.”

Bruce brings his experience from growing up in England to how he sees the Open Cup. “Growing up in Northern England, we love an underdog,” said the scorer of one of the best goals of the Third Round, a cheeky chip for NMU’s second against the Matadors. “Watching a competition that you’re not a part of, there’s something magical about an underdog winning.”

Of course, as a professional at a USL Championship club, Bruce understands the importance of playing the best competition. “Playing in [knockout] tournaments, it’s very different. You understand that to win trophies, you have to be the best. You want to prove that you’re the best, by beating the best teams.”

Bruce celebrates with teammates during the win over Lubbock Matadors

“Playing an in-form MLS side will certainly be a test,” he said of RSL, the Utah-based top-flight side currently sitting atop MLS’ Western Conference standings (at the time of publishing). We welcome this matchup with Real Salt Lake...Nothing will change in the way we prepare.”

Location, Location, Location

The ace up Coach Quill’s sleeve is the location. While New Mexico’s Third Round game took place at home only technically (at nearby Rio Rancho High School), the Round of 32 contest will be in front of a proper home crowd that’s become one of the best in the USL Championship. “Our fans are electric. They are our 12th man,” the coach said. “You can feel the momentum there. We want to get them off their seats early.

“They do an amazing job,” he added about the fans in Albuquerque at Isotopes Park. “I feel really lucky to have this kind of game in front of our home fans.”

New Mexico United’s 2019 run to the Open Cup Quarterfinals was epic

“Being at home we want to be heavy aggressors in the right ways,” Quill went on. “But we’ve got to be smart in our tactics…our moments [in attack] may not be as frequent as they would be in a league game or against a lower-division team, so we’ve got to be clinical when we get them.”

Taking those chances will be key for New Mexico against a favored top-division side, one that boasts the likes of MLS MVP front-runner (alongside a certain Lionel Messi) ‘Chicho’ Arango and young star Diego Luna. Bruce is also aware of the challenge ahead of his team. “The MLS teams have tremendous quality,” he said. “If I was playing for one, I’d expect to win trophies.”

But knowing the quality of the opponent doesn’t mean New Mexico United will be intimidated. After all, underdogs do win. And this is a club that’s got proof that Cup Magic is real.

New Mexico’s Open Cup Legacy

Coach Quill is quick to point to fellow USL Championship side Sacramento Republic’s run to the Open Cup Final two years ago as evidence that it can be done. And in a competition with fewer MLS teams than usual (only eight in total), maybe this is the year for a lower-league team to win it all.

“We set goals before the season and one of them is to win this competition,” he said. “There’s examples that let you know that it’s doable.”

Another reason to believe is New Mexico United’s own proud history in the tournament. Playing all their games on the road in their inaugural year of 2019, they beat two MLS teams (FC Dallas and Colorado Rapids) before bowing out to eventual Finalists Minnesota United in the Quarterfinals.

On Wednesday, May 8th, New Mexico United will try to ride the wave of their rabid fanbase in hopes of beating an MLS club yet again. It could well be a magical Open Cup evening in the high desert, where anything is possible and where – as we’ve come to know – an underdog can win out against all the odds.

Dan Vaughn is a veteran soccer journalist and the founder and editor of Protagonist Soccer. Follow him at @TheDanVaughn on X/Twitter.