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'All about the youth'

By Jason Mack | Laredo Heat SC, 08/23/21, 2:00PM CDT


Winning is a big part of the history of the 17-year-old organization as evidenced by making the playoffs in all but two of its 14 seasons and advancing to the conference championships 12 times with eight titles. The club won the USL PDL Championship in 2007 in the middle of a run of three straight trips to the championship game from 2006-08.

These accomplishments highlight the goal of the Vaswanis to make a name for Laredo both nationally and internationally. More importantly, the success sets an example for the youth players and helps further the success of the academy which features children between 3 and 17 years old.

Laredo Heat SC operates at a loss to promote youth soccer

Priya and Shashi Vaswani

A pair of contradictory cliches are simultaneously true for Laredo Heat SC President Shashi Vaswani and Vice President Priya Vaswani as they will never be content unless they are the last team standing, but also winning isn’t everything. Any success the organization achieves is in the name of supporting the youth academy and growing the sport within the community.

Winning is a big part of the history of the 17-year-old organization as evidenced by making the playoffs in all but two of its 14 seasons and advancing to the conference championships 12 times with eight titles. The club won the USL PDL Championship in 2007 in the middle of a run of three straight trips to the championship game from 2006-08.

These accomplishments highlight the goal of the Vaswanis to make a name for Laredo both nationally and internationally. More importantly, the success sets an example for the youth players and helps further the success of the academy which features children between 3 and 17 years old.

“That has been the idea since the beginning,” Laredo Heat SC General Manager J.J. Vela said. “We’ve always had the youth academy. We’ve had teams competing since 2005 in the South Texas Youth Soccer Association. Now those kids are having kids, and some of them are now in our academy. It has come full circle.”

Lack of opportunity

The idea to create the Heat began in 2003, but the seed was planted much earlier in 1980 when Shashi Vaswani was 15 years old and his family moved from Canada to Laredo. An avid soccer player, Vaswani expected to enter a vibrant soccer community as he moved up against the border with Mexico. What he found entering his sophomore year at United High School was a lack of organized soccer, even at the schools.

“When all my friends heard we were moving down here, they said my soccer aptitude was going to get so much better. When we moved down here, it was like a slap in the face,” Vaswani said. “There was no high school soccer and no club soccer. The only soccer we really played was informally. A bunch of guys made up a team and we played at St. Patrick’s Church. We used to go there every day after school and play. We’d play informally against other schools. Everything was done on our own.”

Sergio Gonzalez was one of his teammates on those informal teams, and he is happy to see the soccer opportunities available in Laredo today even though they made the most of their limited situation during high school.

“Soccer was a big thing across the river, but in Laredo the school district did not have a program in place,” Gonzalez said. “We didn’t even have refs. Some of the teachers would be the refs and the coach. It was a lot of fun. I remember at lunch we would play, and one day this thin kid asked to play. It was Shashi’s first day of school. Shashi was a great player. You could tell the way he dribbled and passed the ball, he had a vision of the whole field.”

Without formal training, Vaswani’s dreams of making a push at a pro career fell by the wayside. When he returned to Laredo in 1991 with Priya Vaswani four years after they got married, those memories lingered as the business they started began to take off.

“Not to say I would have made it pro, but I never got a chance. I never got that training and that competitive edge,” he said. “That was always in the back of my mind. I left Laredo after I graduated thinking I wouldn’t be coming back. Fate brought us back here.

“We would talk about soccer and how there was nothing here for the kids. I wanted to offer the youth in Laredo an opportunity I never had, an opportunity to pit yourself against other players in and out of the community. I also wanted to bring some formal training. The seed sort of got planted when I came here and saw there was nothing. At that point I didn’t think I could do anything about it. Two things had to happen: we had to move back to Laredo, and we had to be successful with our businesses.”

Priya Vaswani did not know much about the USL PDL when they began discussing the idea in 2003, but the idea of supporting the youth was all it took to get her on board.

“The whole goal for me was all about the youth,” she said. “That’s what sold me on the whole idea of starting this program was giving the youth a chance to go to colleges and get scholarships, some of them getting to play professionally.

“I have been very happy with how we’ve done it and how we’ve put Laredo out there in good light. People all around the United States know where Laredo is who didn’t before. That is a big plus. For the kids, we have gotten an MLS contract with one, scholarships with others, we’ve had a girl with a DI scholarship. Those are big deals for me that I’ll always remember. Also, sports help keep kids busy and keep them out of trouble while teaching character.”

Operating at a loss

Building up the flagship team and the youth programs over the years has come at a cost.

“We have never even come close to turning a profit. If I tell people the amount we are losing, they will say I am stupid to do it,” Shashi Vaswani said. “It is what it is. Hopefully we get paid back in different ways. What I’d love is to see people realize what we are doing and for the stands to be filled, to have that support. We want people to have entertainment and come out and support the team. Anything we make is going to trickle down to support the youth.”

The financial loss extends to notable exhibition events the Heat have hosted over the years. These included a match featuring Javier “Chicharito” Hernández with the Chivas in 2005, a match between the USA and Mexico U20 teams in 2008 which featured former Heat player Felix Garcia, an International Soccer Fest featuring the Chivas, Rayados and Tigres U20 teams and many more.

They all came at a financial loss despite drawing large crowds, but they also achieved two of the organization’s primary goals of putting Laredo on the map and providing entertainment for the city. It was a similar situation during the run of three straight USL PDL championship appearances from 2006-08 as the Heat put in competitive bids to earn the opportunity to host each time, and all three matches were featured live on national TV through the Fox Soccer Channel.

“A lot of people won’t do these kinds of things because they look at the bottom line,” Shashi Vaswani said. “I knew going in I was going to lose money, but you are introducing the city to the Chivas and we got Chicharito to come. Doing things outside of the box is what I like to do.

“We want Laredo to come out ahead. If you ask the players like Chicharito, they aren’t going to know about who put in the money. They are going to know they came to the city, they had a good experience and they left. We are in it for the city.”

The organization is always looking out for opportunities to increase exposure for the sport locally, and the Vaswanis proceed with this goal knowing they are unlikely to ever profit from it.

“We are not going to be able to ever sell the team,” Shashi Vaswani said. “We are not a professional team; our value is not going to grow. There is no financial incentive. But we love the sport, and we think Laredo deserves more toward the sport.”

Continued youth development

With the Laredo Heat Youth Academy getting back to action this month, Shashi Vaswani is excited to see the program continue to develop.

“We have a long way to go. I don’t think we’ve scratched the surface yet,” he said. “It has taken some time, but we have a good formula now. Our youth program is headed in the right direction. It is an expense to us, and we hope more sponsorships can jump on when they learn what we are trying to do and realize it is all for Laredo. There are exciting things on the horizon.”

The academy provides opportunities similar to a volunteer-based program as it is tuition free for the competitive U11, U12, U14 and U18 teams while also offering scholarship opportunities to children who need it on the pay-to-play U6, U8 and U10 teams. However, it does not operate like a volunteer-based program as the Heat aim to provide the best training possible.

“We believe that when we develop players, we are also developing the foundation, as everyone involved within is expected to perform at a high level in every action and portray the club’s four core values, FIRE: Family, Integrity, Respect and Effort,” Executive Director of Administration/Marketing Edith Ortiz said. “Our city has many talented soccer players, and unfortunately not all families have the financial means to give their players the tools needed to succeed in a soccer career. With the implementation of the tuition-free program, a window of opportunities has opened to many talented Laredoans.”

One way this is achieved is through vertical integration and consistent coaching from top to bottom. Competitive Phase Director Fabian Arciga also helped coach the National Premier Soccer League team, and NPSL assistant coach Roger Bonilla is also helping coach the youth now. Both are experienced coaches who have earned their U.S. Soccer C License.

“You have coaches whose philosophy and coaching styles are aligned with the ownership group and aligned with me,” Laredo Heat SC head coach John Powell said. “We see the game very similarly. We can emphasize the same coaching points that aid the players’ development.

“Fabian was helping us at the NPSL, he was the head coach of the UPSL team and also the director of coaching. Roger is with the youth now too, so now a guy who has been with the NPSL three straight summers is now helping the coaches develop these young players based on the principals the NPSL has. The principals of play grow across the whole club, and that’s a huge thing.”

Powell said another benefit of the vertical integration is the constant interaction between the NPSL players and the youth players.

“On the NPSL team, not only do the guys serve as role models for the youth players, it’s also a great opportunity to have high-level collegiate players, guys close to making it to the professional ranks, being in constant interaction with the youth players,” he said. “They are passing by the training, or they are ball boys and girls at the games, or our guys are helping at camps and other events. It is a really unique situation not a lot of clubs have in the country.”

Grooming the pros of tomorrow

Along with helping the Laredo youth, the club is also attempting to be a stepping stone for youth from around the world with its NPSL roster. When the organization was part of the USL PDL, it was a trailblazer by recruiting veterans and youth players from Mexico while also mixing collegiate players into its roster. In their debut season with the NPSL in 2018, the Heat recruited exclusively collegiate players. Along with paying off with a conference championship, it also provided an opportunity to showcase talent on the cusp of professional careers.

Heat Assistant General Manager Rishi Vaswani has grown up with the team since he was 13, and he has enjoyed its evolution over the years.

“I tell the players now that when this team started I was 13 and the players were 22 or 23, and now all the players are 22 or 23 and I’m 30. I’ve seen both sides of looking up to them and now them calling me sir which is the weirdest thing,” he said. “From where we started to where we are now, we have a different setup of the team. I enjoy it, but it’s crazy how you start with one thing and have to adapt to something completely new if you want to stay relevant.”

The team is excited to assist players from all over the world including players from Israel, Italy, Japan, Scotland, Spain and more just on this year’s team. However, the ultimate goal is to have a large quantity of home-grown talent on the roster. The dream is starting to become a reality with players such as Jorge “Koke” Mares, Elias Perales and Johan Portales all receiving playing time this season.

“It has always been our intention to have kids from Laredo play,” Vela said. “Now it’s starting to happen. The youth and the Heat NPSL are intertwined. We’re hoping within a few years that it’s not just a few players and that the spine of the team will be from Laredo.”

“For almost 10 years I have been a witness of the Laredo Heat Soccer Club and Academy’s focus which is player development,” Ortiz said. “The Vaswani family and the club have set their goal on the development of players to help them achieve a soccer career, a college education and to provide them with the tools needed to be good citizens.

“As the years pass, we see how the players that were once learning the grassroots of the sport are now preparing to try out for high school soccer teams, college programs and some even proudly representing Laredo in professional soccer, and at the end this is what encourages the club to continue with its mission.”

Championship or bust

While player development will always trump all other goals, winning is still a big part of what the organization aims to do, and you will always find the Vaswanis cheering louder than anyone on the sidelines. The team continued its success this season going 8-2-2 and featuring the No. 1 defense and No. 2 offense in the Lone Star Conference.

However, the season was ultimately considered a disappointment by the owners as the Heat fell in the conference championship game against the Denton Diablos FC, a team Laredo beat 3-2 during the regular season. That proved to be the only loss all year for the Diablos as they won three more games after beating the Heat to claim the NPSL Championship.

“I think whoever won that game would have had a very good opportunity to go all the way,” Shashi Vaswani said. “Kudos to them. It’s not easy what they did. You have to play well every game. I think the blessing in disguise for them was losing to us in the middle of the season. If they hadn’t, they might have had a bad game somewhere down the road.”

One big family

Win or lose, the Vaswanis are thankful for the support of coworkers from their other ventures to help keep the organization going. Even Vela does his duties as the general manager on top of an already hectic full-time job.

“A lot of people don’t see that. At the end of the day, people don’t know what we do for a living. They know the Heat,” Vela said. “That’s our public persona. They don’t know about our exporting business, our importing business, our real estate, our hotels and everything else we do. We have to work in order to make this function.”

“We have the best coworkers we could possibly ask for,” Priya Vaswani said. “They are all about volunteering and helping. If they weren’t soccer fans before, they are sure soccer fans now. They love it. It’s all voluntary to help with the Heat, but they have all become soccer fanatics. They are all so on board. We couldn’t do a Heat game without our volunteers.”

Rishi Vaswani was once amazed at the dedication by the employees to put in the extra time for the Heat, but he now understands it firsthand.

“Growing up through the years I saw how much work everyone at the office put in,” he said. “Seeing how much everyone did for the Heat on top of their full-time jobs astonished me. My parents said you don’t have to give up your time and you don’t have to come to the games, but everyone does it because they appreciate my parents that much. Our organizations really are one big family.

“I will never give this job up. I look forward to the summer every year even though it adds on top of my full-time job. It is the greatest job in the world. Growing up with the team has been nothing short of special for me.”

The Laredo Heat SC NPSL team competes from April to August, and the youth academy season runs from August to June. For more information on how to get involved with either, visit

“We try to do our best and hope we can move forward positively for everybody,” Shashi Vaswani said. “My wife and I come from very humble backgrounds, so we understand giving back is important. We are glad we are able to. We really want Laredo to shine.”

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Priya and Shashi Vaswani