Utah State’s soccer team undoubtedly proved it belonged in the Mountain West Conference with a 0-0 draw Friday against perennial league power New Mexico.

“We know we can compete with the top teams and we’ve shown it ... so going into games, we’re never intimidated by teams,” Aggie midfielder Shay Haddow said. “We always know that we can compete with (good teams).”

USU will get another opportunity to make a statement when it welcomes defending Mountain West champion San Diego State to Bell Field on Sunday afternoon for a 1 o’clock kickoff.

This will be the Aggies’ third home match in seven days.

“You know, it is a great challenge and with us moving into the Mountain West ... the competition’s going up, and I think for us it’s a challenge to step up and show who (we are),” USU center back Taryn Rose said. “... We’ve been looking forward to it and it’s nice to have them here in Logan.”

Indeed, this match will be a huge challenge for the Aggies. After all, the Aztecs are coming off their best season in school history. SDSU won every MW match it played in 2012 — the conference tournament included — and advanced to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.

The Aztecs, who finished with a very impressive record of 21-2-1, were ranked fourth nationally when they bowed out to UCLA in the Sweet 16.

SDSU got off to a slow start this year, but that’s largely because it played a very difficult non-conference schedule. The Aztecs squared off against the likes of nationally ranked programs in UCLA, Michigan and Portland, plus Michigan State, Pepperdine and USC.

However, the Aztecs (9-6-2 overall) have found their stride during Mountain West play as they sit alone atop the standings with a 7-1-0 record. Meanwhile, the Aggies (9-5-3, 5-2-1) are currently in fourth place and just three points behind second-place Fresno State and New Mexico. The Bulldogs have played one more match than USU, though.

Veteran Aggie head coach Heather Cairns knows how talented the Aztecs are and is hoping for a big, boisterous crowd Sunday.

“I think we put on a great show for the fans and hopefully we’ll do that again on Sunday,” Cairns said following the New Mexico match. “You know, fatigue is going to be an issue for us. It will be our third game in a couple of days, but luckily our bench is deep. ... And we’re just going to recover and give it our best shot (against SDSU).

“But yeah, we’re really excited to host that caliber of a team here. It should be a great match for fans to come out and watch.”

Sunday’s showdown will feature arguably the top two defensive teams in the Mountain West. The Aggies and Aztecs both have recorded nine clean sheets on the campaign, including five apiece during MW play.

SDSU’s backline is anchored by one of the best defenders in the nation in Haley Palmer, the reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year. The 5-foot-9 senior was one of 25 players selected to Soccer America’s Preseason All-America team.

Teammate Carli Johnson, who is also a tall defender at 5-9, is a returning first-team all-conference honoree, as well. Additionally, Johnson was the MVP of 2012 Mountain West Conference Tournament.

Offensively, the Aztecs are led by imposing 5-11 forward Hannah Keane, who is also a returning first-team all-league selection. The senior has given opposing backlines fits this season as she has scored 10 goals, which ranks second in the MW, and has assisted on four others.

“They’re very good in possession, they’ve got a lot of (big) personality players, they’ve got some natural goal scorers,” Cairns said. “... They’ve got (big) personality players at every (position).”

SDSU, which returned seven starters and 16 letterwinners from last year’s record-setting squad, enters this match fresh off of Friday’s 1-0 victory at Boise State. The Aztecs have won 15 of their last 16 road matches in Mountain West play.

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jturner@hjnews.com

Twitter: hjtrebek

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