By Laredo Heat SC
The Laredo Heat are in the unique situation of simultaneously looking to shake off a disappointing result and riding a wave of momentum as they prepare for their first home match in 22 months. Friday also marks the first home game as head coach for John Powell as the Heat host Irving FC at 8:00 pm at the TAMIU Soccer Complex.
“We want to get the three points and set the standard,” Powell said. “This new group needs to carry over what most of the Heat teams have done in the past and win your home games and provide entertainment for the Laredo community. We have a really good team, and people who like the game will appreciate how we’re trying to play.”
Powell is familiar with the lofty expectations for the organization as he served as an assistant under his collegiate head coach Dana Taylor with the Heat during the 2018 season. In its debut National Premier Soccer League (NPSL) season, Laredo rolled to a perfect 10-0-0 record while never trailing during the regular season. The Heat earned the No. 1 overall playoff seed out of 98 teams that year and secured the Lone Star Conference title before falling three games short of the national championship.
Despite an extensive track record of success, extenuating circumstances have limited the opportunities for title runs in recent years. The stellar debut NPSL season was preceded by a two-year hiatus from competition, the Heat missed the playoffs in 2019 for just the second time since the club’s inception in 2004, and the 2020 season was lost to the COVID-19 pandemic. Powell is confident in the ability of this year’s team to reestablish the playoff standard.
“It is a blessing,” Powell said. “This organization has had a lot of trust in me, and you want to reward that faith. We want to make sure we are putting out the best product we have ever had. That is always the standard. They were really good in 2018, and we want to have an ever better team. We want to put out a better product and keep growing the brand that is the Laredo Heat.”
The playoff push got off to a strong start in the season opener as Laredo rolled 3-0 on the road against Coyotes FC. Last week the Heat seemed on track to double their total to a perfect six points on the road trip as an early goal gave them a 1-0 halftime lead. However, despite dominating possession throughout the rainy match, the Heat fell behind 2-1 due to a pair of penalty kicks for Katy 1895 FC. Faced with their first adversity of the young season, the Heat responded by generating several set pieces before breaking through right before full time as right back Gabriel Claudio headed in a corner kick to salvage a 2-2 draw.
“I think that was vital for the guys,” Heat midfielder Oscar Govea said. “We were bound to go against adversity like that in the season. In a situation like that, the guys responded really well. We were able to pull out a tie. Obviously it’s not the result we wanted, but it is a lot better than leaving with no points.”
Anything short of six points on the season-opening road trip was going to be viewed as a disappointment, but Powell also took several positives from the result. Along with seeing how his players would respond to adversity, it provided a teachable moment about putting teams away, and the last-second goal provided a jolt of momentum.
“So many teams would have lost that game,” Powell said. “In the face of adversity, the conditions of the field, penalties, all these things, some people would think this is not our day. Our boys were the opposite. They said we are not leaving here without a point and they just fought and fought. Scoring a last-minute equalizer on the road to make sure we take the point also is important because we keep the other team off of three. The boys will definitely carry that momentum but also know that we don’t want to let it get to that point. It is kind of a double-edged sword.”
While Laredo failed to put Katy 1895 FC away, it got off to a strong start for the second straight game. Midfielder Jonathan Cervantes has scored in the opening 20 minutes of both matches this season, and Powell credits the early leads to both their pregame routine and their philosophy of controlling the early action.
“It is a lot more in-depth than a fan watching and seeing we are scoring early goals,” Powell said. “What people aren’t seeing is our warmup that is run by assistant coach Roger Bonilla is in-depth and thorough, and they start the games ready to go and a step quicker than the other teams. That’s something we pride ourselves on is laying the first tackle, having the first shot on goal, the first set piece and the first goal. We have done that in both games so far. We have talked about it since they have been here, and we want to make sure that keeps going.”
Something will have to give Friday as Irving FC brings loads of its own momentum to Laredo. The Gallos opened their inaugural season last week with a 2-1 home victory over Coyotes FC on May 22 at R.L. Anderson Stadium in Mansfield, Texas.
“Irving is coming off a momentum-building type of win, and we want to stop that,” Powell said. “They are made up of a lot of really good local players and are very good individually. They want to dominate possession, and that’s one of our goals every match is to be on the ball more than the other team. That will be a real battle to take a look at.”
While Powell believes both teams are loaded with talent, he sees Laredo’s depth as a significant advantage.
“It is a task to pick the 18 guys dressing for every game so far, and it is going to be like that throughout the summer,” he said. “That competition within each position is pushing the whole group to be better.”
The competition is fierce on the practice field, but it is competition based on mutual respect as the players have already bonded in their short time together in Laredo.
“We are all young and around the same age, so we are able to get along very well off the field as well as on the pitch with our qualities that we bring,” Govea said. “That carries onto the field. We haven’t been here that long together, but the guys have adapted together and to the environment very quickly. That’s great to see, because it is not easy to adapt with new players and try to hit the ground running with only about a week and a half of training. There is good energy. There is not one guy here who thinks he is above the rest. Everybody is humble. Everybody wakes up bright and early ready to go to work.”
Govea and the Heat are ready to put their camaraderie and depth to good use Friday as they aim to secure another three points in their home opener.
“We are excited,” Govea said. “The travel days we played these past two weekends were a big toll on the body since we drove up the day of the game. We’re excited to have a big crowd here on Friday. I know a lot of guys are pumped to see the local people come out to support us. We’re going to give it our all for sure.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC