By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
The ultimate goal of Laredo Heat SC President Shashi Vaswani and Vice President Priya Vaswani is to have a roster loaded with homegrown talent. Laredo native Johan Portales is proving the viability of their dream as he is coming off a performance where he helped set up the winning goal.
“It is something I have wanted ever since I was in the academy,” Portales said. “I looked up to the guys when they used to play in the PDL. I always told my dad I wanted to do that, and he also encouraged me. Now that I’m here, I’m proud of myself.”
“I have been a big fan of Johan’s for about three years since my first trip out to Laredo,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “He is a technical player, he has a fantastic left foot, he has great size and very good soccer IQ. He adds value to any team he is part of, and I’m just happy we have him here.”
The Vaswanis operate the Heat at a loss every year because they use the National Premier Soccer League team to achieve their goals of putting Laredo soccer on the map and building up youth soccer in the city with the Laredo Heat SC Youth Academy. They are optimistic players like Portales and fellow United South High School graduate and Texas A&M International University player Elias Perales are the start of something bigger.
“It’s great to have local talent on the team. That has always been our objective,” Shashi Vaswani said. “We hope in the future we can evolve into a team that has a good majority of talent from Laredo. Johan typifies how that will be possible. He plays with great discipline, he is very dynamic and he has great heart. We hope we can do more, but Rome wasn’t built in a day. The fruits of our labor will eventually show up with the program.”
Portales hopes his experience inspires more young Laredoans to help the Vaswanis achieve their goal. That future could be just around the corner with success such as their U13 team coming off a run to the state championship.
“I just want to set an example for them and let them know anything can happen if they set their mind to it,” he said. “If they work for it, they can achieve their goals. It is a great opportunity for the kids from the academy that want to move to the professional level. It is a great stepping stone to help them achieve that dream. I think it is really helpful for everyone in Laredo, especially with the non-pay-to-play academy.”
Along with growing up in the Heat’s academy, Portales also built up his skills at United South. Among his many accomplishments were being named the District 29-6A Offensive Player of the Year in his junior season while helping lead the Panthers to the district championship and a run to the fourth round of the playoffs. He also earned first-team all-district honors his senior year, and he was even named honorable mention All-State in the other football at kicker.
“During high school it was a great experience,” Portales said. “It helped me reach to the college level, and thanks to that I’m able to be here with the Laredo Heat as well.”
“I think it is fantastic. He is a role model for the kids, and it is what we want here,” Powell said. “His approach to training and game preparation is higher than most young players. There is a reason why in this environment he has been successful. It is the environment, the coaching he received at the youth level, his college experience, and his approach every day to football.”
After subbing in during the 75th minute of the season opener, Portales did not see the field in the next two games. However, his diligence in preparation paid off as he checked into the game in the 65th minute on Thursday, June 3 at home against the Denton Diablos FC.
“He has been patient,” Powell said. “He received minimal minutes the first three matches, and he has put his time in and kept his head down at training and done everything the staff has asked him to do. There was no hesitation on our part when we needed to make that change. On top of contributing to the goal, he did so many things well in that 30 minutes.”
With the Heat (2-1-1, 7 points) clinging to a 2-1 lead against the previously-unbeaten Diablos (4-1-0, 12 points) who were coming off a seven-goal performance, Portales helped author what proved to be an essential insurance goal.
After receiving a pass from Oscar Govea near the center of midfield, Portales dribbled twice, then as four defenders closed in on him he fed a through ball up the right side for Riccardo Turcis. With Gabriel Gacovicaj sprinting alongside him to the left, Turcis approached the net before feeding the ball across. A defender crashing in slid just in time to deflect the ball, but Gacovicaj was waiting and buried it for a 3-1 lead in the 78th minute.
“After not playing the past two games, it was really good being able to contribute and help set up a goal. It was a proud moment for myself,” Portales said. “I saw Ricky with the open space and felt like I needed to make that through ball because he had room to run. It was wonderful. It was a good feeling. I knew Gaco was going to finish as soon as he got him the ball, but then the defense stumbled up on it a little bit. I was feeling iffy about it, but good thing Gaco was able to find the net.”
Gacovicaj and Portales are also teammates at TAMIU along with Perales and Kodai Kobayashi, and their familiarity proved invaluable. Portales also played with Heat forward Nadav Datner for a season before he transferred from the Dustdevils to the Division I level with Hartford.
“I’m used to him because we play together at TAMIU, so I knew when he passed the ball that I just had to run toward the goal,” Gacovicaj said. “It was a perfect ball. I’m really happy. It’s really good because they helped me integrate with everybody with my difficulty with English coming from Italy. It wasn’t easy and they helped me a lot.”
“It is a great feeling because we get to share the field the whole year,” Portales said. “It is great to have teammates year-round.”
The goal those teammates provided allowed the Heat to hold on for a 3-2 victory after the Diablos scored in the 90th minute to get within a goal. They are aiming to build off this momentum as they approach the halfway point of the season with an upcoming road trip. Laredo travels June 17 to take on the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC (3-0-1, 10 points) then plays two days later at the Fort Worth Vaqueros (0-4-0, 0 points).
“That last win gave us confidence,” Portales said. “Hopefully from there we can keep going and keep summing up points.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC