By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
The Laredo Heat SC continued to roll and advanced to the Lone Star Conference championship game for the second time in three seasons after blanking the rival Midland-Odessa Sockers FC 3-0 late Wednesday night in the conference semifinals following a lightning delay at the TAMIU Soccer Complex.
“It is exactly what I expect from these guys,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “Sometimes I have to remind myself they are still college players. Those expectations at times could be a little bit overwhelming, but once again they answered the call. They were fantastic from the first warmup to the second warmup and the first whistle to the final whistle. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Laredo waited nearly three years to be back in the playoffs, so waiting another hour for the weather was bearable. The team missed the postseason in 2019 for just the second time in club history then saw the 2020 season canceled due to the pandemic. During the last playoff run in 2018, the Heat won the Lone Star Conference title before falling in the regional semifinals.
Wednesday’s playoff opener was the sixth straight victory for the Heat (8-1-2) as they extended their unbeaten streak to eight matches. The top defense in the Lone Star Conference and a top-10 unit overall in the NPSL, Laredo is now allowing less than a goal per game after posting its third straight clean sheet and its fourth in the past five games. It has allowed only four total goals and has never trailed during a 7-0-1 stretch.
“I think it is huge,” Laredo Heat SC goalkeeper Gage Rogers said. “It is nice for us because we are on a great streak. We haven’t conceded in a couple games which is nice.It’s going to keep going. Denton is going to be a challenge, but I don’t think it will be big enough for us. When you have 10 guys in front of you like that, it is tough for us to concede. It is huge. I feel like I haven’t had to do a whole lot. I haven’t had to stand on my head much, which I want to do sometimes, but it’s also nice because it keeps my job easy. The guys in front of me have done a great job.”
Along with advancing, the win also served as somewhat of a tiebreaker with the Sockers (5-3-3). The Heat swept Midland in 2018, and the Sockers returned the favor in 2019. With the teams drawing 1-1 in Midland on June 17, their playoff matchup was left to settle the score.
“For us it is massive. It strengthens our group,” Laredo Heat SC forward Riccardo Turcis said. “We knew we were the better team, and we did what we are used to doing.”
Turcis started the season out of position for the Heat spending time at right back to help the team weather the storm of some injuries on the back line. Since seeing a significant uptick in playing time at his natural position of forward, Turcis has been on a tear. He recorded his third brace in the past four games Wednesday, and his six goals rank behind only the nine from fellow forward Nadav Datner.
“He is so good,” Powell said. “He is such a quality player and a quality young man. It is amazing coaching him. I thought he was great from the first whistle. He was dangerous, he defended so hard. We’ve been working with his back to goal and his hold-up play. I don’t know if he lost one in those scenarios. He is still developing. I understand I have the best team, but I still want to develop and keep working with them. We can always get better. He has been very impressive.”
Laredo will travel Saturday to face the Denton Diablos FC (9-1-1) after they dominated 7-0 in their opener Wednesday against the Katy 1895 FC (4-5-2). The Heat remain the only team to defeat the Diablos this season as they won 3-2 on June 3 in Laredo. The winner of the Lone Star Conference Championship will earn the right to host the regional semifinals on Saturday, July 24.
“This is why we’re all here,” Powell said. “We know Denton is the best team in the league. That’s what the standings say. We’re going to challenge that again. We played them extremely well at home. They are a different team on the road, as are we. We are really good on the road. It is going to be a really high-level final.”
Following the lightning delay and multiple warmups Wednesday, the first scoring chance came in the 21st minute as midfielder David Martinez tested the keeper with a deep shot, but Lukas Betz grabbed it with a diving save. The Heat kept up the pressure three minutes later as midfielder Erwin Regules sent a cross from the right side to Turcis in front of the net, but his shot went just wide right.
Regules and Turcis repeated their connection again in the 28th minute and made the most of it this time to pull ahead. A through ball from defender Gabriel Claudio had Regules streaking free into the right side of the box. Instead of shooting from a difficult angle, he crossed the ball to Turcis. The pass was deflected by a defender, but Turcis took a step back to gather it then quickly fired off a shot. Betz was in position, but the shot deflected off his left hand and into the left corner for a 1-0 lead.
“We felt confident,” Turcis said. “We kept doing the right things and the goals came at the right moment. We are happy.”
Betz made one more diving save in the 35th minute off a shot from Claudio on a free kick to keep the Sockers within one at halftime.
Turcis nearly added to his total nine minutes into the second half. He sent a through ball to get Adrian Yepez alone on the left side of the box, then he crashed hard as Yepez passed back across, but Betz was ready and waiting.
Turcis picked up his brace nine minutes later in the 63rd minute. Midfielder Oscar Govea attacked the middle of the box off a give-and-go with Turcis. Govea was tackled from behind, but he did a 180-degree spin from the ground and fought for the ball to tap it over to Turcis. With the defender who tackled Govea also still on the ground, Turcis chipped it over both him and Betz to build a 2-0 lead.
“That was brilliant by him,” Turcis said. “I called it. I said, ‘Find me OG’ and he did.”
In the 79th minute, a through ball from Datner had Turcis sprinting into the box with midfielder Hector Balandran alongside him and a defender trailing. With Betz coming out strong against him, Turcis turned down the shot at a hat trick in favor of passing left to Balandran. Unfortunately, Balandran took a moment to gather the pass, and the brief hesitation allowed Betz to slide into position as he kicked the shot away.
Midland’s best scoring chance came in the 84th minute as its cross on a corner kick dinged off the right post. Turcis got to the ball first and cleared it out before any damage could be done.
The Sockers received a red card in the 87th minute allowing the Heat to close out the match with a man advantage. A pair of late substitutions put an exclamation mark on the victory in extra time. After taking a pass from midfielder Jonathan Cervantes on the left side, fellow midfielder Tatsuma Yuki sent a high-arching pass into the box. His pass connected with fellow Texas A&M International University soccer player Erwin Regules. The Laredo native and United South High School graduate made an acrobatic dive for the header and buried it for a 3-0 advantage.
“It is a good feeling,” Perales said. “Everybody played with their hearts out. It was a good night. Even though there was rain and lightning, we kept our heads straight and finished the task.”
“It is really tough when you have a team like this and there is quality up and down the 18 that you dress,” Powell said. “It’s a playoff game, so you don’t want to go to the bench too early, especially when we’re up 2-nil. We didn’t really need to. You have guys like Yuki and Elias who are doing everything we ask in training. Yuki has started so many games this summer, and he accepted the role he had today. It was such a fantastic ball from him. He is nothing but class. And it was a great header from Elias. I’m so happy for him. He has been here all summer grinding, and it is nice to see him get rewarded.”
It was the second straight game where Perales made an impact late. In last week’s 5-0 win over Coyotes FC, he made another acrobatic play to save a pass from going out near midfield before he raced up the left side and assisted on a goal by Datner.
“As soon as I saw Yuki, I knew he was going to send it to me,” Perales said. “I saw the goal before I even had a chance to score. It was a team effort. It feels great. I’m here to help out as much as I can. I am going to give it my all every second I can get. It is a good feeling seeing the crowd and doing it for my hometown.”
The Heat now shift their focus to a rematch with Denton pitting the conference’s top defense and No. 2 offense against the Diablos’ No. 1 offense. Laredo’s 3-2 victory on June 3 was one of only five times Denton has been held to two or fewer goals. In their other six matches, the Diablos have averaged 5.5 goals. However, prior to Wednesday’s scoring outburst, the other 26 of those 33 goals came against the bottom half of the table, including 12 in a pair of matches against the winless Fort Worth Vaqueros FC, which allowed a conference-high 35 goals this season.
“It will be a good game,” Turcis said. “It is going to be tough, but we are ready.”
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC