By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
The Laredo Heat SC is headed into a lengthy break on a high note handing Denton Diablos FC its first loss of the season with a 3-2 victory Thursday at the TAMIU Soccer Complex to get within two points of first place in the Lone Star Conference.
“It’s huge,” Heat forward Nadav Datner said. “We needed that and we deserved that. We wanted it badly. We were in the right mindset the whole week. I felt good. These are the games you want to play in. That’s why you play this beautiful game.”
Along with a climb in the standings, the win also helped the Heat accomplish a pair of other goals. They successfully bounced back from their first loss, a 2-1 defeat to Irving FC in last Friday’s home opener, and they beat the Diablos for the first time after dropping both matches against them in 2019.
“I just think the boys and their mentality from last Friday to today has been nothing but professional,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “The way they approached the game, the way they were receptive to slightly different tactics and the way they executed those tactics on a short week was fantastic.”
Denton (3-1-0, 9 points) entered the night leading the National Premier Soccer League with 4.7 goals per game thanks to scoring a combined 12 goals the past two games. The Heat (2-1-1, 7 points) held them in check all night and didn’t even allow that many quality scoring chances.
Heat captain Erwin Regules made his first start of the season after appearing as a substitute the previous two games while returning from injury, and he was crucial to the victory. The midfielder’s corner kicks set up each of the first two goals, and he picked up an assist on the go-ahead goal. Datner scored Laredo’s first two goals for his second brace of the season. He leads the team by a wide margin with five of its nine goals.
“I’m buzzing,” Regules said. “I’m happy. I haven’t played that much. I’ve been on the sidelines, but I finally got to play and help the team out as much as I could. We got three goals. I was happy to play.”
“Erwin starting and doing what he did for us, the leadership he brought, was amazing to see,” Powell said. “He is fully deserving of all those minutes he got and fully deserving of the result. I know he is enjoying it for sure.”
With Lewis Wilson and Esteban Hernandez out of the lineup due to illness Thursday, Powell credited several other players for stepping up including defenders Liam Morrison and Henry Sach and midfielder Oscar Govea.
“I think Liam is a pro,” Powell said. “He has another semester of college left, and you’ll be seeing him in the USL or above very soon. He’s more of a natural left back, but he’s been doing what we needed because we had some injuries. Even today we were out two center backs due to illness. The boys responded. You could talk about Henry and how he stepped in or about Govea and how he came in at the half and changed the whole complexion of the game. For me, Nadav was the man of the match, Govea was right there as well. There was Liam. There were so many guys in contention. That means the team played well. That means the team really put in a shift. I’m so proud of them.”
In the first half, Denton capitalized on the open space during a breakout as the keeper was cheating to his right with a player running to that side. Instead of feeding the ball up to his teammate, the forward took advantage of the keeper’s positioning and shot from the top center of the box into the lower right corner of the net for a 1-0 lead in the 42nd minute.
The lead didn’t last long as Datner broke free up the left side in the 44th minute. His shot from inside the box was deflected wide left, but Laredo got the equalizer off the ensuing corner kick. The feed from Regules directly to the right corner of the net was disrupted with a diving deflection by the keeper. However, it went right to Gabriel Gacovicaj. He quickly fed it back and to the left to Datner, and the right-footed forward got a shot off with his left foot into the dead center of the net before the keeper could get back up.
“I felt like I wasn’t really helping them out in the game, so to have Nadav finish on those crosses was really good for me,” Regules said. “It motivated me to keep going in the game. All credit to Nadav. I just put the ball and he found it.”
“Gaco and Nadav have a nose for a goal, and they were just ruthless,” Powell said. “To be clinical doesn’t do it justice. You have to sniff it, you have to hunt it and you have to bury it. They did all those things today. It is so fun to watch when you know that’s what they are capable of. They do it in training day in and day out, it just hasn’t fully clicked. Today was the time. We’re for real.”
The Diablos had one chance to pull ahead in extra time with a corner kick, but it was easily deflected by the Heat to head into halftime tied 1-1.
Gacovicaj had a pair of quality chances early in the second half. In the 48th minute he put a shot from point blank right at the lower left corner of the net, but it hit the inside of the post and deflected wide. A couple minutes later he had a chance in the box off a turnover, but a defender and the keeper closed in on him before he could get a shot off.
“He was great today,” Powell said. “He came in with a slight injury. We brought him along. He trusted SJ (Sarah Sandoval), Sarai (Costa) and Kayla (Zambanini), our trainers who are the best trainers in the NPSL. He trusted their program, and he’s now back playing 80-plus minutes.”
Laredo broke through with the go-ahead goal 20 minutes later. Regules again put his corner kick from the left side directly at the right edge of the net, and Datner tracked it all the way heading it in from inches away from the goal line for a 2-1 lead in the 69th minute.
“What a cross,” Datner said. “He is special. I was really looking forward to linking together with him.”
Datner had a shot at the hat trick in the 75th minute, but his kick of the ball out of midair went over the net.
The Heat added a crucial insurance goal three minutes later as Gacovicaj shook off the frustration from his missed chances earlier in the half. A through ball from Laredo native and United South High School graduate Johan Portales – who checked into the game in the 65th minute – got Riccardo Turcis running free up the right side. Turcis turned down the open shot to make the extra pass. It was briefly deflected away, but Gacovicaj was waiting and buried it anyway for a 3-1 lead.
“I was so happy,” Datner said. “I told him at the beginning that he was going to score. He is a really great guy, a special player, and I’m really happy for him. I told him the second one is not enough and that we’re going to score the third one, and you’re the one who’s going to do it. He believed it, I believed it and we got it.”
Gacovicaj ripped off his home kit in celebration as if it embodied the pent up frustration from his close calls earlier in the half. The celebration netted him a yellow card, but that was an afterthought as he was tackled to the ground by Datner and mobbed by teammates.
“For a striker it is super important for your confidence and for the team,” Datner said. “I am so happy for him. To recover from that takes a lot. He is a great player, and mentally he is a great player as well. To recover from those misses is not easy as a striker. I’m so happy he recovered.”
The goal featured a pair of collegiate teammates as Portales and Gacovicaj also play together at TAMIU. Current and former Dustdevils featured heavily in the scoresheet as Datner played at TAMIU his freshman season in 2019 before transferring to the Division I level at the University of Hartford.
“Johan didn’t play any in the last two matches, but he is a guy I have loved since I got into Laredo in 2018,” Powell said. “I can’t say enough about how I think of him as a player. Sometimes it just didn’t work out to get him in the game. Today it was clear and obvious that he had to be out there, and I thought his impact was huge.”
The insurance goal made the difference as Denton stayed alive with a goal in the 90th minute then quickly generated a throw-in from the corner, but Laredo avoided further damage during two minutes of extra time to hold on for the victory.
“I told the boys before the game we are not going to ride the emotional roller coaster throughout the match,” Powell said. “If something bad happens or something good happens, we are going to stay level. That is exactly what they did for 90, and that’s the same approach for the week. We’ll enjoy this one. It felt really good. We knew we needed the three points here and we got them. We’ll enjoy it tonight and then it’s just a day off or two and straight back to work.”
The Heat have a two-week break before traveling June 17 to take on the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC.
“It was definitely a big sigh of relief,” Regules said. “We had a lot of pressure on us, and we managed to deal with it today. We’re moving on with the season now. We have Midland next.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC