Next-man up mentality fuels Laredo in key road victory
By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
With first place in the Lone Star Conference up for grabs Thursday, the Laredo Heat SC overcame injuries to an already depleted lineup and took charge in the second half on the road to win 3-1 over the Denton Diablos FC and climb back to the top of the table.
“The boys were fantastic from start to finish,” Heat head coach John Powell said. “We talked about how it was going to be a match with momentum swinging back and forth and making sure that when the momentum was with them, we remained in control and didn’t let the game get out of hand. Especially at the end of the first half when they had a really good spell of possession and we were trying to sort some things out, our discipline and our work rate got us into the break 1-1, and in the second half we took over and controlled most of it.”
Thursday was already a key battle as the Heat and Diablos entered deadlocked for second place with identical records while being separated by only one in goal differential. The match took on added significance when the Corinthians FC of San Antonio was upset 1-0 at home against the CF10 Houston FC on Wednesday. It meant a win from either team Thursday would vault them into first place.
The Corinthians (7-1-2) still lead the conference with 23 points, but the Heat (6-1-1, 19 points) have played two fewer games and hold the advantage in points per game. The teams are also tied with a plus-17 goal differential, while Denton (5-2-1, 16 points) dropped to plus-14 and fell to third place in the conference standings.
“The boys are really excited,” Powell said. “When you have the expectation to win the league, you obviously know to do that it helps to be in first place. We are also very aware that the job is not done. We know we have a really tough one on Saturday now, so the attention has already switched to that. We enjoyed it last night. The boys were in really good spirits. But now the focus at breakfast even was on how we do this again tomorrow.”
Laredo entered the matchup shorthanded as midfielder Juan Romero served a one-game suspension for accumulating four yellow cards while midfielder Ruben Nielsen and forwards Kristian Colaci and Gabriel Gacovicaj were unavailable. Forward Roberto Ordonez exited the match with an injury in the 28th minute meaning that for most of the match, players responsible for 13 of the team’s 20 goals and 10 of its 16 assists from the first seven games were unavailable.
“That is all about mentality,” Powell said. “We were already short a couple guys and didn’t even have a full 18 dressed. Then you take an injury to a key player early and have to make a change. Our response to that was of a championship mentality. I’m extremely proud of the boys. They handled the situation like champions.”
Luckily for the Heat, the rest of the lineup stepped up across the board highlighted by a trio of midfielders. Jordan Mase was a steady offensive threat scoring his first two goals of the season and putting several other shots on target. Masaya Sekiguchi replaced Ordonez and recorded his third goal and second assist. Erwin Regules, last season’s captain, rejoined the club and provided a second-half spark in his season debut including assisting on Sekiguchi’s game-winning goal.
While clean sheets are always the goal for the Heat with four already this season, the defense still accomplished a rare feat Thursday becoming just the second team to hold the Diablos to a single goal. Denton has not been blanked this season with its lowest output coming in a 1-1 draw with Irving FC. Goalkeeper Connor Durant was consistently aggressive in playing forward to break up scoring chances, and he was instrumental in neutralizing the limited set pieces Denton earned with four corner kicks and one significant free kick.
“Connor has been great all summer,” Powell said. “There have been some matches where he was like, ‘I didn’t have to do anything today coach.’ Yesterday was obviously not one of those matches. You always say if a goalkeeper can own their six-yard box it will make it easier, and he owns about 10 to 12 yards inside his box. He was collecting all the services. I thought he was so good last night.”
The Heat scored at least three goals for the fifth time in the past six matches. They joined the Corinthians as the only teams to record more than one goal against the Diablos this season.
Thursday was the fourth straight tight battle in a budding rivalry between Laredo and Denton. The Diablos won the first meeting 2-1 in 2019. The Heat built another 3-1 lead at home in the first matchup last season and held on for a 3-2 victory, and Denton also took care of business on its home field getting an insurance goal in added time to win 3-1 in the conference championship.
Laredo struck first in the 18th minute Thursday as Mase stole the ball, drove up the midfield to the top of the box, and delivered a booming left-footed kick just inside the right post past a diving effort from the keeper.
“Jordan was fantastic even if you take the goals he scored out of it,” Powell said. “He logged the most miles of anyone that played and defended extremely well. He was so good. When we identified him as someone we wanted, we thought he brought a lot to the table. He backed all that up yesterday. He was fantastic. I’m so happy for him.”
Ordonez left the game with an injury in the 28th minute, and as Sekiguchi waited to sub into the match, Denton capitalized on the temporary man advantage. A pass splitting two defenders connected with Adan Garcia as he ran into the box, and he cut around the last defender before beating Durant on the short side to level the score in the 32nd minute.
“Ordonez has been producing goals, creating goals and his defending has gotten so much better since he’s been here this summer,” Powell said. “He’s a complete player now. When you lose that 30 minutes in, there can be a void. But I don’t think we missed a beat. Masa stepped in and completely did what was needed.”
Regules subbed into the match in the 60th minute, and it took him less than 10 minutes to get onto the score sheet. In the 69th minute, he ran around two defenders to just inside the left edge of the box, and he centered a cross over the outstretched hands of the keeper. Sekiguchi was waiting and buried the header to put the Heat back on top.
“Erwin has made such a great impact coming back,” Powell said. “He knows the coaching staff, he knows the ownership group, and he knows the expectation. He said, ‘I’m coming back and I want to beat Denton and win the title.’ His intentions are very clear, and his vibe and energy he has brought has been really special.”
A turnover from the Denton goalkeeper set up an insurance goal in the 85th minute. Three defenders closed in on Sekiguchi as he approached the top center of the box, and he threaded a pass through them to Mase as he raced into the box. With only the keeper to beat, Mase cut to the right around him and tapped in his second goal of the night and of the season. He nearly made it a hat trick as he added two more shots on net in added time including one off the left post.
The Heat face a quick turnaround as they attempt to protect their spot atop the standings. They remain in North Texas to take on the Fort Worth Vaqueros FC (2-6-1) at 7:30 pm on Saturday. The Vaqueros have been up and down over the past three matches as they tied 2-2 with Houston, won 3-0 over Coyotes FC, and lost 3-0 to Denton.
“Fort Worth is going to be a good team as always,” Powell said. “They are going to be organized. For us to beat them, we’ll have to be very disciplined and very patient, and we’ll have to take our chances like we did last night. I’m expecting another battle. We have a lot of sore bodies and tired legs, but we’re focusing on recovery as much as we can today and we’ll go from there.”
Following the road trip, the Heat are back at home Wednesday, June 29 for an 8:00 pm rematch with the CF10 Houston FC at the TAMIU Soccer Complex. Tickets are $5 for general admission and $20 for VIP. Children 12 and under get in free.
Please visit laredoheatsc.com and follow @laredoheatsc on social media to stay up to date on the latest news. Any youth players interested in joining the academy can visit laredoheatscyouth.com for more information.
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC