By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
After joking throughout the regular season that a talented defense allows him to get clean sheets with little effort, Laredo Heat SC goalkeeper Connor Durant proved in the playoff opener he can be the difference maker when needed. With the weight of the season resting largely on his shoulders, Durant delivered by stopping three of four shots faced. The Heat won 3-1 on penalty kicks over Irving FC in the Lone Star Conference semifinals Tuesday at the TAMIU Soccer Complex following a scoreless draw.
“You just have to play in the moment,” Durant said. “You get a feel for it as is. You feel out each player and feel out how the boys are doing shooting, and you honestly just hope for the best at that point. It felt great. When I was walking to the spot, I asked the assistant ref, ‘If I save this, do we win?’ He said yeah, so nothing else needed to be said. It was a great feeling.”
With the win, the Heat (9-1-3) advanced to the Lone Star Conference championship match for the third time in four seasons. Laredo will attempt to secure this championship as it hosts the Corinthians FC of San Antonio (8-2-3) on Saturday.
“When you get into knockout football, it is about advancing,” Heat head coach John Powell said. “With clean sheets you are never going to lose. You are going to be in a good position, and with the best goalkeeper in the country, I will always back us. I am just so proud of the boys.”
Both teams buckled down defensively in the final third throughout regulation and both overtimes, and both keepers were up to the task with the limited scoring chances to send the match to penalty kicks.
The Heat were up first from the spot as Roberto Ordonez stutter stepped before firing into the lower left corner. Facing his first attempt, Durant dove to his left to punch away a shot at the lower corner keeping Laredo ahead 1-0.
“The mentality is no nerves,” Durant said. “You have to think that all the pressure is on the kicker. You hope for the best, control what you can control and go from there.”
Ruben Nielsen methodically placed a line drive into the left side past a diving save attempt for a 2-0 lead. Irving (6-2-5) followed with its lone successful attempt, and a shot off the crossbar from Teddy West opened the door for the Gallos to pull even. However, their next attempt also went off the crossbar to keep the score at 2-1.
Daisuke Takanaka froze the keeper with a stutter step and shot into the left side to extend the lead to 3-1. That set up his Colorado Mesa University teammate for a chance to lock up the victory, and Durant capitalized on the opportunity.
“I had to have composure,” Takanaka said. “I knew where to take it and where to kick it. I just had to focus on myself and nothing else around it. I knew Connor was going to make the save, because he saved a lot of PKs at school. I knew he would save it.”
Durant didn’t bite on a similar stutter move and dove to his right, stopping a shot on target to the low corner. Durant leapt up and ran to celebrate as he was swarmed by both teammates and youth academy players.
“Sometimes you go in before penalties and heads are down, but everyone was saying they wanted one,” Powell said. “Connor said, ‘It isn’t going to get that far, because I’m saving two.’ And he ended up saving three. He is unreal. He is going to be a pro, and I am so proud of him.”
The shutout was the seventh of the season and second straight for Durant and the Heat, and it came just two days after his birthday.
“You can’t ask for a better goalie,” Heat captain and center back Lewis Wilson said. “The willingness to win is second to none. Connor is at a different level.”
The top-ranked defense in the entire 95-team NPSL continued its dominant stretch as Laredo has allowed only three goals in the past seven matches. That effort allowed the team to advance despite being held scoreless for the second straight match after recording goals in the first 11 games.
“Connor is so disciplined,” Powell said. “He is such a presence, and he is a great shot stopper. He has shown his feet are very good as well. He is a complete goalkeeper, and I am so glad he is wearing our shirt.”
The defensive effort to reach penalty kicks required gutsy performances, timely substitutions, and selfless play as Laredo’s endurance was tested playing for the third time in seven days.
“They played a full 120 minutes,” Durant said. “There were guys playing that in any other game would get subbed off. They kept playing. If the boys are going to play for me for 120 minutes, I have to get them in the shootout. It has to be that way.”
Wilson showcased his Iron man status playing the entire 120 minutes plus added time. Injuries forced a pair of substitutions on the back line which led to Takanaka shifting to defense for the third straight match after subbing in up top earlier in the second half. Laredo proved up to the task of halting the momentum of an offense on a roll as Irving had scored 24 goals in its previous five matches.
“That was the third game in the week and legs are falling off,” Powell said. “Everyone that was called upon did their job. Everyone was like, ‘Whatever you need Coach, I’m in.’ And they did it. Our assistant coaches Roger Bonilla, Josh Jones, and Fabian Arciga got the subs right and got the prep right. The boys left it all out there. They are tired, and they are shattered, but it makes it all worth it.”
Laredo’s victory handed the Gallos their first loss in over two months since the season opener on May 7 as they entered their first playoff appearance on an 11-match unbeaten streak. It also marked just the second time Irving was held scoreless.
The Heat now shift their focus to attempting to match the 2018 season by winning the conference championship. The other Lone Star Conference matchup also came down to penalty kicks Tuesday as the Corinthians FC of San Antonio won 7-6 on the road against FC Brownsville (8-4-1) after playing to a 2-2 draw.
Laredo will host the Corinthians at 8:00 pm Saturday in the Lone Star Conference championship just one week after the teams finished in a scoreless draw in the regular season finale. After drawing in their first two meetings, the tie will be broken Saturday to determine who will represent the conference next week in the regional playoffs.
“We have to settle something,” Powell said. “We played to two draws. I’m looking forward to it. We know they are a really good team, but I’m always backing my boys.”
Tickets for the playoff matches remain $5 for general admission and $20 for VIP. Children 12 and under getting 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.