By Nick Flores/NPSL.com
The Laredo Heat enjoyed a great season last summer under John Powell having reached the region semifinals and being crowned Lone Star Conference champions. Powell had been with the club since 2018 and was named head coach ahead of the 2020 season as he etched his name into club history. Despite a great run with the organization, Powell has decided to step away from the club for the 2023 season given the birth of his newborn child in the fall.
Questions were raised as to who would be Powell’s successor and the Laredo Heat gave fans an answer in November when they appointed Johnny Clifford as the club’s new head coach. Clifford is a Scottish international who currently is at the helm at St. Mary’s University where he led the Rattlers to a Lone Star Conference title and a 12-2-6 record. Clifford also coached in the NPSL most recently in 2019 as he was in charge of Midland-Odessa Sockers FC.
“We have known Coach Johnny Clifford since he coached at Midland-Odessa and have always appreciated his passion for the sport. These past few years we have seen first hand his success at St. Mary’s University (San Antonio), and several of his players have spent their summers here with us so our prior relationship has been solid,” Laredo Heat SC General Manager J.J. Vela said. “We are looking forward to having Johnny be the head man for us this upcoming 2023 NPSL season, and he understands our commitment to the players and the league. And we know he will do well leading our organization and these young men to success on and off the field.”
Clifford has always been on the shortlist of candidates for the coaching job and given the club’s circumstances and coach Powell not returning, now felt like the perfect time for the Rattlers head coach.
“I expressed an interest in the job a few years ago but obviously they had people in place already,” Clifford said. “I think the Vaswani family knew I was interested in the job and kept an eye on me for the last couple of years. I’ve been fortunate enough to do really well at St. Mary’s and I think now with their plans and goals it’s the right time for me to make the move.”
Clifford and the Heat seem to be the perfect fit.
“I think Laredo feels really right to me,” Clifford said. “There’s something poetic about me going down there. I’m really excited because I’m at the club that is most passionate about football. When I met Shashi and Rishi (Vaswani) and talked about expectations, I felt how much they cared. For me to have ownership like that, I don’t see any way that it’s not an environment I thrive in.”
Clifford is no stranger to success. As mentioned, he led the Rattlers to a conference title and an NCAA tournament run. Given his experience both collegiately and in the NPSL, this move by the Heat seems like the perfect fit for the Scottish international.
The Heat had a real shot at making a run to the NPSL National Championship game seeing as they boasted the top defense in the NPSL headlined by Golden Glove winner Connor Durant. Not to mention center back Lewis Wilson and full-back Sebastian Rivera who were key members of the 2022 squad.
Clifford had the chance of coaching Wilson and Sebastian and Jose Rivera at St. Mary’s this past season, and he credits them with the move as well.
“I’m very close with those boys and they all told me the same thing, ‘Coach, this is the job for you,’” Clifford said. “They’re guys who are with me every day so they know how my mind is and my mentality is. I heard nothing but positive things from them so that made me want the job even more.”
Both Clifford and the Heat set their standards high when it comes to success so this appointment comes as no surprise given each of their track records. With a desire to compete for a national title and an authentic and deep passion for the sport, Coach Clifford knows what he offers to the club and is more than ready to get started.
“I think they (fans) can expect a fiery character,” Clifford said. “I’m somebody that likes to practice what I preach and I put a lot of energy into my training sessions and into my team. I think you’ll see a team who works really hard and tries to play good football. I think what you’ll see from me is someone that tries to connect with the city of Laredo. Win, lose or draw, we’ll be out there and try to get as many fans to the games as possible. Hopefully we’ll get some wins along the way!”
The 2023 season is full of promise for the Laredo Heat as the ownership and fans alike are thrilled to have Clifford at the wheel. A national title push is in the cards for the club, and NPSL fans should expect another great season from Laredo as they begin the Johnny Clifford era.
Photo Credit: Laredo Heat SC