By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
The battle between the top offense and the top defense in the conference went to the offense Saturday in North Texas as the Laredo Heat SC ended its season with a 3-1 loss to the Denton Diablos FC in the Lone Star Conference championship game.
“Tonight stings, but I still stand by it that we are the best team in the NPSL,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “We outplayed every single team we played. Today we dug a big of a hole for ourselves, but at the end of the day you can’t knock their commitment to each other and their commitment to playing quality football. It is the best team I have ever worked with, and I am forever grateful for this summer and what these guys have sacrificed to be here.”
Along with ending the season, the defeat snapped a six-game winning streak and an eight-game unbeaten streak for Laredo. It was also the first road loss of the season for the Heat (8-2-2) who were previously 3-0-2 away from home.
Laredo entered the contest posting clean sheets in four of the past five matches and allowing less than a goal per game. The Diablos (10-1-1) were averaging nearly four goals per game. They were the first team this season to put up three goals on the Heat, though it warrants mentioning that the third goal came right before the final whistle in extra time.
The lone goal for Laredo came from forward Nadav Datner who was honored last week as a member of the National Premier Soccer League Team of the Month for June. Datner reached double digits as it was his team-high 10th goal of the season.
Coming off a seven-goal performance in the semifinals featuring six goals in the first half, Denton got off to another fast start Saturday. With a free kick from the far right in the ninth minute, midfielder Carlos Flores crossed the ball into the right side of the box and forward Sam Coad headed it into the lower left corner for a 1-0 lead.
One of the Heat’s best chances of the half came only five minutes later with a free kick from 42 yards out on the right side from midfielder Oscar Govea. He sent it into the left side of the box, and a header from defender Gabriel Claudio just cleared the crossbar.
A few minutes later, Laredo got another couple shots at the equalizer. A corner kick from Govea crossed near the left post was punched away by the keeper, and defender Esteban “Wiki” Hernandez got a quick shot off from the top of the box on the rebound. The keeper made a diving save and a defender cleared it out. The Heat quickly regained the ball, but the next cross trickled harmlessly through the box.
Heat keeper Gage Rogers kept the deficit at one with a pair of punching saves a minute apart in the 30th and 31st minutes. Those efforts nearly kept the score 1-0 heading into halftime, but the Diablos struck again in the 45th minute. Midfielder Brandon Cerda snuck by one defender to create a one-on-one. Claudio was back and kept pressure on him, but he cut left around Claudio just long enough to shoot low into the right side from 15 yards out past a diving attempt from Rogers.
Laredo broke through in the 74th minute to put the pressure on late. Just like they did twice in the 3-2 win over Denton in the regular season, Laredo Heat SC captain and midfielder Erwin Regules and Datner connected on a corner kick for a goal. From the left side, Regules crossed far to the right of the box, and Datner put the ball down hard with a header to put the Heat on the board.
Denton had consistently tight pressure on the ball defensively throughout the night which made it difficult for Laredo to create chances to complete the comeback. The best opportunity came in the 80th minute as Regules sent a through ball from 40 yards out up the right side to midfielder Hector Balandran.
Balandran pushed up hard and passed across to Riccardo Turcis just in front of the net, but his one-timer shot was deflected away on a sliding play from a defender.
Denton was able to milk a large portion of the remaining clock from there as it generated four consecutive corner kicks to eat up nearly four minutes. The Heat pushed into the final third a couple times in the closing minutes but couldn’t get any shots on net, and Denton closed out the game with a goal just before the final whistle.
“I don’t think Denton touched the ball in the second half,” Powell said. “The third goal was obviously kind of an asterisk, it didn’t matter. Our response to being 2-nil down was great. We didn’t stop and stayed true to who we are. Even with the late fouls and taking two of our starters out of the game with dirty tackles, I’m happy with our response to the adversity. If that game goes on another four or five minutes, we’d probably get another one. At the end of the day, I’m just so proud of them. I’m so happy to be their head coach.”
After winning the first conference championship in team history, the Diablos will host FC Golden State which won 3-0 over the Las Vegas Legends FC to win the Southwest Conference.
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC