By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
The Laredo Heat SC closed out the regular season with a fifth straight victory Friday beating Coyotes FC 5-0 at the TAMIU Soccer Complex to secure a home playoff match and at least the No. 2 seed in the Lone Star Conference.
“I think it is fitting,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “We started the year off with a very good win at Temple against a very good team, and the boys today from the first whistle to the final whistle were composed. There is so much quality up and down the team. With the 18 that dressed, you could make an argument that every single one of them should be starting. It’s a good problem to have as a coach.”
With the victory, the Heat (7-1-2, 23 points) took the lead for total points in the conference but still remained behind the Denton Diablos FC (7-1-1, 22 points) in the standings. The Diablos travel Saturday to face the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC (5-1-3, 18 points) needing a victory to hold onto the No. 1 seed. If the Diablos lose or draw, Laredo climbs to No. 1. The Heat hold the tiebreaker thanks to beating Denton 3-2 on June 3.
“It is massive because we are fighting for first place,” Laredo Heat SC forward Riccardo Turcis said. “That is what we are looking for and what we fight for.”
“I told the boys to focus on what we can control, and tonight was the only thing in our control,” Powell said. “We know Denton and Midland are fantastic sides, and they are going to have a battle. Whatever the outcome is, we will play somebody. We will start prepping for them like we prepped for every other game. We focus on us and give a little scouting report on what we expect the opponent to do. At the end of the day, we truly believe that if we are on our game and we execute properly, we think we are the best team in the NPSL.”
Laredo will finish as the top defense in the conference after posting its fourth clean sheet of the season led by keeper Gage Rogers. The Heat finished with just 10 goals allowed in 10 games. The next-closest opponent is Midland which has allowed 11 goals through nine games.
Friday’s five goals were a season high for the Heat after previously scoring four goals in a pair of wins over Brownsville. Laredo was led by braces from forwards Nadav Datner and Riccardo Turcis along with a goal from midfielder Tatsuma Yuki. The brace was the third of the season for Datner who also scored twice when Laredo won 3-0 over the Coyotes in the season opener. Datner led the Heat with nine goals in the regular season followed by five from Gabriel Gacovicaj and four from Turcis.
“I believe Nadav is a future pro playing college soccer right now and getting his education,” Powell said. “I can’t say enough good things about the quality he has. He works so hard at training. People see the end product, but they don’t see the hours he puts in perfecting his craft.”
With the large lead in hand, the Heat were able to sub in Jorge “Koke” Mares in the 86th minute for his season debut. Mares is a 17-year-old Laredoan heading into his senior season at United High School.
“It was adrenaline. It is what I’ve been working for and getting ready for,” Mares said. “I’m happy. I couldn’t ask for anything else, and I’m excited for what is coming. It means everything. I’ve been working every day trying my best and competing against my teammates and doing my best out there.”
“Koke has been an absolute pleasure to coach,” Powell said. “We talk about this summer with Koke, but he was here in 2018 and we identified at the time as U15/U16. He came into a couple trainings and I was really impressed with his work ethic and training habits. Again in 2019 when I was out here it was the same thing. This summer getting to know him and work with him has been an absolute pleasure. He is a joy to coach. I’ll take him on any team I ever coach for the rest of time. He’s such a quality human being and quality player. He deserved every minute he got if not more.”
Thanks to posting their fourth clean sheet of the season, the Heat got all the offense they needed just 5:02 into the game. Datner, fresh off being named to the National Premier Soccer League Team of the Month earlier in the day, put Laredo ahead. David Martinez intercepted a pass near midfield and passed ahead to Datner just inside the box. A slide tackle knocked Datner down as he entered the box. He didn’t receive a call, but Datner managed to get up, gather the ball and fire a shot in from the top left of the box to the bottom right corner.
Turcis provided separation in the 21st minute capitalizing on aggressive play from the Temple keeper. Heat captain Erwin Regules sent a through ball up near the top right of the box, and as Turcis gathered it and dribbled in the keeper was about 15 yards out of the net. Turcis turned on the burners to get around him to the right allowing him a wide-open look at the net for a 2-0 advantage.
“Ricky is a goal scorer,” Powell said. “He played out of position for us the first three games because we had some injuries. He played as a right wing back and did extremely well. When we go back to look at the film, we just know he has to be in front of the goal. His pace is a problem to deal with and his quality is a problem. He deserved those goals. He was absolute class.”
Turcis capitalized again on the keeper’s aggressive style in the second half. Off a deep through ball from Regules, Turcis had a clear path to the net and the keeper again came about 15 yards out. This time with a defender close behind, Turcis instead stopped and chipped the ball high over the keeper and in for a 3-0 lead in the 60th minute.
“The keeper was coming out both times,” Turcis said. “The first time I took him on, and the second time I saw he was really out so I just chipped it in. It worked out, so I’m happy for that.”
A second-half substitution, Yuki got in on the scoring in the 85th minute. A cross in front of the net was headed away, but Yuki was waiting 12 yards out and shot high into the right corner past a diving keeper.
The Heat added one more three minutes later. Laredo native and United South graduate Elias Perales made an acrobatic play to save the ball from going out near midfield, then he burned by a defender down the left side to break free for a clear shot at the net. However, instead of taking the shot he made the extra pass across to the right to assist on the second goal of the night for Datner.
“That sums up Elias,” Powell said. “He is selfless. He shows up every day at training and works extremely hard. What a drive from him picking up the ball basically at the midline. He had so much pace and so much quality, and then he had the selfless finish. Instead of trying to go from a tight angle for his glory, he slipped it across. He will take the assist over the goal any day. That’s my type of player. I’m so proud of him. He’s done so much for us.”
The loss may eliminate the Coyotes (4-6-0, 12 points) from the postseason. They need a loss or draw from Katy 1895 FC (3-4-2, 11 points) and a loss or draw from Irving FC (3-5-1, 10 points) to earn the fourth and final spot.
The Heat will be home again Wednesday to open the postseason with their opponent to be determined by Saturday’s matches. They will watch closely Saturday night when Midland hosts Denton to see if they can claim the No. 1 seed.
“We are looking forward to the game,” Turcis said. “We can’t control that, but we did our part. We left some points earlier in the season, but we finished really strong. I’m happy for the group. It is an amazing group.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC