Laredo Heat win Lone Star Conference Championship
By Jason Mack/Laredo Heat SC
In an opportunity it worked the past year toward earning again, the Laredo Heat SC took care of business in its second straight Lone Star Conference championship appearance beating the Corinthians FC of San Antonio 3-0 Saturday at the TAMIU Soccer Complex to win the title for the second time in four seasons.
“It was 364 days in the making, and it feels amazing,” Heat head coach John Powell said. “I’m so proud of the team. The boys were excellent tonight from start to finish.”
“It feels amazing,” Heat captain and center back Lewis Wilson said. “This is for the likes of JP, the owners, and everyone that puts the work in behind the scenes every day. This is what it means. You see all the fans here. It is surreal for an NPSL club to have people like this.”
Laredo (10-1-3) was in the conference finals for the third time in four seasons in the NPSL. It won the title in its debut season in 2018, and last season it fell on the road against eventual national champion Denton. This time around, the Heat achieved their goal of earning the No. 1 seed and home field advantage, and they capitalized on that advantage Saturday.
“It is a great feeling to win the Lone Star Conference championship at home,” Heat defender and Laredo native Jose Rivera said. “We celebrate today, and tomorrow we’ll rest and get back on track to win the regional semifinal.”
“It feels great,” Heat forward Roberto Ordonez said. “That’s what we were looking forward to in the beginning of the season, and it’s not done yet. We still have work to do. Hopefully we can get that national championship.”
The victory was the eighth clean sheet in 14 matches for the Heat and goalkeeper Connor Durant this season. The No. 1 defense in the NPSL extended its scoreless streak to 347 minutes plus added time.
“Everybody is pressing and giving their all from the wingers on down,” Wilson said. “That is a championship team. If you are willing to put every bit of heart on that blade of grass, then you can’t ask for anything more.”
Laredo’s defense has been especially dominant at home during a 7-0-1 unbeaten streak throughout the season. The Heat have outscored opponents 22-2 with six shutouts.
“They are unreal,” Powell said. “We legitimately have the best goalkeeper in Connor Durant and the best center back in Lewis Wilson. Jose Rivera stepped in and was unreal. Daisuke Takanaka is a Swiss Army knife, and he was amazing at right back. Liam Morrison is a pro, and Colton Shafer and Juan Romero in the middle of the park locked it down. And that’s not to discredit any of the attacking players, because we defend as a team. Like Lewis said, we’re always down to bleed for each other.”
Along with determining the conference championship, Saturday also served as a grudge match to break a tie spanning the entire season as the Heat drew 1-1 at San Antonio (8-3-3) in the season opener and tied 0-0 at home in the finale.
“We made a lot of necessary changes from the last two games we played them because we tied them twice,” Shafer said. “Going in we knew what we had to do. We knew since it is a final they were going to come out flying, and we knew we needed to come out flying. Honestly, we started off a little slow, but we corrected it and started working for each other more throughout the half. Once we got the first goal, I knew it was over right then. After that we just kept working.”
The 0-0 draw in the finale was part of a lengthy scoring drought for Laredo. Since rolling 5-1 over Houston on June 29, the Heat had scored just one goal in three matches and entered the conference finals on a scoreless streak spanning 245 minutes plus added time.
“We know how good we are in the attack,” Powell said. “Oftentimes because we throw a lot of clean sheets and we have the best goalkeeper in the country, people think we defend, defend and defend. But we’re very good in the final third. We finally got a couple sessions to work on that, and it was evident today.”
The scoreless streak ended 29 minutes into Saturday’s match, and Laredo tacked on a pair of insurance goals in the second half. It was Laredo’s seventh match this season with at least three goals.
“It feels amazing. We played really well compared to the past two games,” Heat forward Kristian Colaci said. “We scored goals and created more opportunities. We caught the passes in the final third and finished scoring chances. I’m really happy with the performance of everyone.”
Colaci, the Heat’s leading scorer, sparked the offensive resurgence scoring his ninth goal of the season and what proved to be the game winner in the 29th minute.
Takanaka got into position to intercept a deep pass from San Antonio and redirected it up to Romero just shy of midfield. Romero also tried a long pass and connected with Colaci on the left side of the box. Colaci was taken out by an aggressive play from the keeper, but with no whistle he quickly got up and was first to the ball. He gathered the rebound, took a step to the right, and shot around one defender and high into the center of the net over another who even attempted to use his hands but couldn’t reach it.
“It felt super good,” Colaci said. “When you are the first team to score on the pitch, everything gets easier. You have more opportunities to score, and that’s how it went. We won 3-0. I’m super happy.”
“They listened to everything we said all week and in the locker room before the game,” Powell said. “They went out and executed. That first goal was everything for us. It set the standard for the rest of the match.”
Laredo achieved its goal of a quick start in the second half as it took less than three minutes to double the lead. A deep pass from Shafer set up Jordan Mase on the right side of the box, and his shot was deflected wide left for a corner kick. Mase took the corner and placed the cross in the dead center of the box where Jose Rivera headed it home for his first goal with the Heat.
“It feels amazing,” Rivera said. “I’ve been waiting for this moment for so long. It’s all about hard work on and off the field. I’m really happy to contribute with a goal, but I’m most happy with the win.”
“Jose is the man of the match in my opinion.” Wilson said. “What a guy.”
In the 78th minute, Wilson came up with a steal and quickly put a deep ball up the middle for Colaci. With one defender to beat, Colaci drifted to the left and allowed Ordonez to crash into the box. As a second defender chased Colaci, he centered a pass to Ordonez who placed it into the lower right corner for 3-0 lead.
“We worked on it during the week,” Ordonez said. “We knew we had a lot of chances in the past games that we didn’t put away. We were able to execute this game, and you can see the results.”
With the conference championship in tow, the Heat are now just four wins away from achieving their ultimate goal of winning the national championship.
“It’s awesome,” Powell said. “The boys deserve it. They want to keep playing, so I want to keep coaching them.”
The Heat continues their postseason run on the road Wednesday against Tulsa Athletic (11-1-2). The Athletic won 5-1 Saturday in the Heartland Conference championship against OKC 1889 FC (9-3-2). If No. 1 overall seed Jacksonville (12-0-1) slips up in either of its next two matches, the winner between Laredo and Tulsa would host the regional finals on Saturday, and if Jacksonville advances, the winner would have to travel.
“We will continue approaching it one game at a time,” Colaci said. “We’ll celebrate of course, and then we’ll think about Tulsa. We’re going to try to win game after game to reach the national final.”
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Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC