By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
Closing out a stretch of five games in two weeks, the Laredo Heat SC is looking to pick up a fourth straight victory and exact revenge as it hosts Katy 1895 FC at 8:00 pm Wednesday at the TAMIU Soccer Complex.
“We are excited to be back on our home field,” Laredo Heat SC keeper Gage Rogers said. “There is nothing like this field. It is the best in the conference for sure. We are happy to be home to finish it out. We expect six points and we won’t take anything else.”
The Heat (5-1-2, 17 points) have played their best during the busy stretch going 3-0-1 in a span of 10 days. Since suffering its lone defeat 2-1 May 28 against the Irving FC, Laredo has picked up 2.6 points per match while averaging three goals scored and 1.2 goals allowed. After taking on Katy, the Heat will get a break before closing out the regular season at home against the Coyotes FC on July 9.
“We are really happy to go on the road three of the last four and get good results,” Rogers said. “It’s huge for us because we do better at home than away. We’re happy to be home for the last two, finish out the season and make a run for the championship.”
“The coach and assistant coaches know how to manage us well,” Laredo Heat SC forward Riccardo Turcis said. “They make sure we’re ready for every game and make sure our legs are fresh and our focus is on point.”
Katy (3-3-2, 11 points) will take no pity on Laredo’s busy schedule as it works through its own gauntlet playing for the second straight day and the third time in five days. Katy won 2-1 Saturday at home over the Fort Worth Vaqueros FC and played to a 1-1 draw on the road against the FC Brownsville Explorers on Tuesday night before heading to Laredo.
The intensity will be high Wednesday with both teams looking to settle a score. The Heat are out for revenge after being disappointed by their 2-2 draw in a rainy game at Katy on May 22. Katy likely reciprocates the feeling as it held a 2-1 lead until the last play of the game. Laredo led 1-0 at the half off a goal from Jonathan Cervantes, but Katy converted two penalty kicks in the second half to pull ahead. The Heat continued to battle and scored just before the final whistle as Gabriel Claudio headed in a corner kick to salvage a draw.
“There is no love lost between the teams,” Rogers said. “There was a little bit of intensity and some physicality in the last game. They are coming here, and we have something to prove and a chip on our shoulder. We are going to prove something, and nothing less than three will be acceptable.”
“I’d be lying if I said this wasn’t a date I’ve had circled on the calendar for a while,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “We have to be better. We’re going to take ownership of it. We lost points that day plain and simple. We’re now in a really good position in the table, but we still have that feeling in our stomach that we lost points that evening. We can’t get them back, but we’ll make sure we don’t lose any more.”
Penalty kicks have accounted for 40% of the goals allowed by the Heat this season. Despite the four goals allowed from the penalty spot, Laredo is just shy of ranking first in the Lone Star Conference at 1.25 goals allowed per game. Midland-Odessa is first at 1.13.
“Hands down we have the best defense and goalkeepers in the conference,” Rogers said. “We were a little disappointed giving up two in the last game when we shouldn’t have, but before that we had the clean sheet. We have only conceded two goals twice this year, and the other games have been no more than one. We are really happy with how we are doing, and we’ll keep it up from here.”
In some notable coincidences, Katy salvaged a tie with a goal in extra time in Tuesday’s game, and it came off a penalty kick. Katy has a minus-3 goal differential and ranks near the bottom of the table with 10 goals scored in eight games, but it has climbed into position for the fourth and final playoff spot thanks to a defense which has held opponents to two or fewer goals in all but one game. Laredo will test them as it has scored at least three goals in five of eight games. After scoring four goals in both games last week against Brownsville, the Heat are averaging 2.63 goals per game which trails only the 3.75 average for the Denton Diablos FC.
Along with revenge being on the line, both teams are also focused on their postseason goals. The Heat already locked up a playoff spot Saturday thanks to their 4-2 victory at Brownsville combined with a loss from the Coyotes FC, but there is plenty left to play for. Winning out would guarantee at least the No. 2 seed and the right to host the playoff opener. If Laredo wins out and Denton (6-1-1, 19 points) has a loss or draw in either of its final two matches, then the Heat would take the No. 1 seed.
“We have to close out with six more points,” Laredo Heat SC President Shashi Vaswani said. “We definitely have the better team, and we have to show up. The physical load we have to worry about, but what is more important is the mental load. The mental aspect of this game is huge. In the Euro 2020, Netherlands was so much better but lost to the Czech Republic. You can’t think that you have the better team so you can just walk on the field and the goals are going to come. That just doesn’t happen. We are the superior team these last two matches, but we can’t relax. We have to be prepared mentally to get the three points.”
The situation is more dire for Katy despite climbing into fourth place Saturday with a 2-1 win over Fort Worth. After Tuesday’s draw, it leads by just one point over Irving FC, two points over Coyotes FC and three points over FC Brownsville. Katy could quickly fall out of the playoff picture, but it could also still finish as high as the No. 2 seed.
During its 4-0-1 run over the past five games, Laredo has showcased its depth getting goals from a variety of sources. On Saturday, Gabriel Gacovicaj picked up a brace in the first half and nearly made it a hat trick. Powell offered to let him come back out for a bit in the second half to push for the hat trick, but he was honest about needing the rest and agreed with the idea to substitute Turcis into the game. The move paid off as Turcis matched him with a brace in the second half to help preserve the 4-2 victory.
“He was on a hat trick at the time, and I asked if he wanted a couple more minutes to go for the hat trick,” Powell said. “He said, ‘I’m tired, Ricky is ready and he has earned it. Let’s go.’ Talk about the selflessness from Gaco to say to give Ricky the nod. Ricky went out and backed it up with a brace himself. It’s a testament to what the coaching staff, the owners and everyone have tried to build this summer. There is quality in every position, and it is two or three deep. Guys take their opportunity when they get their moment. That’s what Ricky did on Saturday.”
“We started off well with two goals in the first half, then I got the chance to come in and get some good minutes,” Turcis said. “They had a good answer back, but we were the better team by far.”
The previous 4-0 win at home last Wednesday featured goals from four players as Datner scored his team-leading seventh goal, Claudio scored his second of the year and Hector Rodriguez and Adrian Yepez each scored their first. For the season, Datner is followed closely by five goals from Gacovicaj while Claudio, Turcis and Jonathan Cervantes have two each, Rodriguez and Yepez have one and the team has one off an own goal.
Tickets for Wednesday’s match are $5 for general admission and $20 for VIP access, and children 12 and under get in free if they wear red. There are no concessions for sale due to COVID-19 protocols, but fans are encouraged to bring their own food and drinks.
“Please do as you’ve done in the past games and come out and support us,” Vaswani said. “I know everybody enjoys the atmosphere out there. I high five everybody out there when we get a goal, so hopefully we get a lot of high fives on Wednesday. These boys have done tremendously all year. We have to do our job Wednesday, and fans please come out and help us do it.”
“The fans this summer have set a whole new standard for us,” Powell said. “I’ve been out here back and forth for a couple seasons and the support has always been great, but it has been consistently great in the three home games we have had. It is always buzzing and electric. We appreciate it and really need everyone out there.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC