The Laredo Heat SC is attempting to win the Lone Star Conference championship for the second time in three seasons as it travels Saturday for a 7:30 p.m. match against the Denton Diablos FC.
The Laredo Heat SC set several lofty goals prior to the National Premier Soccer League season. It achieved the first weeks ago by locking up a playoff berth, and the next is up for grabs Saturday as the Heat play for the Lone Star Conference championship with a 7:30 p.m. match at the Denton Diablos FC.
“It’s not every year you play in a final,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “If I look back in my coaching career, it has been about six years since my last final. You don’t take it for granted. You are just very fortunate and blessed. The boys and all their hard work and commitment is what has us in this position. We’re just looking to take full advantage of it.”
The Heat (8-1-2) earned their spot in the finals by beating the Midland-Odessa Sockers FC 3-0 on Wednesday at the TAMIU Soccer Complex. The Diablos (9-1-1) also took care of business at home rolling 7-0 against the Katy 1895 FC.
Denton’s victory featured a six-goal first half. The outburst of goals was not unprecedent coming from a team that led not only the Lone Star Conference but the entire South Region with an average of 3.5 goals. It was the fifth straight win for the Diablos and extended their unbeaten streak to seven games.
“It is two very similar teams,” Powell said. “There is a lot of quality on their side. Clearly the stats show it. They are one of the best attacking teams in the league. They are dangerous going forward. They play with some freedom at times that is hard to defend against.”
The high average from the Diablos comes off an unbalanced surge in goals throughout the season. Denton was held to two or fewer goals in five matches including a 3-2 loss in Laredo, but it has averaged 5.5 goals in the other six contests. One of those games was Wednesday’s seven-goal performance, but the 26 goals in the other five matches all came against teams on the bottom half of the table. That included 12 goals in a pair of victories over the winless Fort Worth Vaqueros FC which allowed a conference-high 35 goals this season.
Denton edged Laredo for the No. 1 seed in the conference by winning 2-0 at Midland on the final day of the regular season. A loss or a draw would have made the Heat the top seed. The Diablos were mired in a scoreless match until breaking through in the 83rd minute.
The effort to secure home-field advantage could be important for Denton. It is unbeaten at home this season at 5-0-1 while outscoring opponents 25-5. On the road, it is 4-1-0 with only a 17-12 advantage in goals. The Heat have been comparable no matter where the game is played. Laredo is 5-1-0 at home outscoring opponents 17-4, and it is 3-0-2 on the road with a 13-6 edge. With Denton unbeaten at home and Laredo unbeaten on the road, something has to give Saturday.
Denton’s No. 1 offense will have to contend with Laredo’s No. 1 defense which averages less than a goal allowed per game. The Heat have posted three straight clean sheets and have four in the past five games. Laredo has allowed only three goals during its six-game winning streak, and it has allowed only four during an eight-match unbeaten streak.
“Defense tends to win championships, so we’ll see if we can test that theory,” Powell said.
Along with its defensive prowess, Laredo has also been on a roll offensively. The Heat are averaging four goals per match during their six-game winning streak. Forward Riccardo Turcis has been a big part of that effort recording three braces in the past four matches.
Denton struck first when the teams last met on June 3 getting a deep shot into the lower right corner in the 42nd minute. However, the Heat immediately struck back as forward Nadav Datner broke free up the left side then drew a corner kick as his shot was deflected out. The cross from Heat captain and midfielder Erwin Regules was also deflected by the keeper, but a teammate redirected it to Datner who scored just before the half to level the score. That was the last time Laredo trailed this season.
Set pieces proved crucial to the matchup as Regules connected directly with Datner on the next corner kick. Regules sent his cross to the far post, and Datner headed it in from inches away for a 2-1 lead in the 69th minute. An insurance goal in the 78th minute proved essential as Denton cut the deficit back to one in the 90th minute. The Diablos kept the pressure up in two minutes of extra time, but the Heat held on for the victory.
Laredo is attempting to win the Lone Star Conference championship for the second time in three seasons. The Heat won in 2018 before missing the playoffs in 2019 and seeing the 2020 season canceled. Denton is attempting to win the first conference title in its young history.
“It is going to be a really tough game,” Powell said. “Both teams will have spells with the ball, both teams will have dangerous opportunities. It will come down to who takes advantage of those opportunities and who doesn’t.”
To view a live stream of Saturday’s Lone Star Conference championship match, visit youtube.com/user/laredoheatsc.
The winner of the Lone Star Conference championship will be back in action next Saturday and will get to host the regional semifinals.