As one of 16 teams remaining in the National Premier Soccer League postseason, the Laredo Heat SC has matched its deepest playoff run in four seasons in the league and will attempt to reach new heights as it travels to Tulsa, Oklahoma on Wednesday to face the Tulsa Athletic, last year's national runner-up, at 7:30 p.m. in the regional semifinals.
“All summer we have been talking about how every time we put the boots on and come together as a team, it is a good opportunity to show what the boys are about individually and show what we’ve done this summer,” Heat head coach John Powell said. “This is a great chance to go to a powerhouse and give them a battle. We’re looking forward to it.”
The Heat (10-1-3) earned their spot in the regional semifinals by continuing to dominate defensively through the Lone Star Conference. Laredo won 3-1 on penalty kicks in the conference semifinals following a scoreless draw with the Irving FC Gallos, and it picked up another clean sheet in the championship match winning 3-0 over the Corinthians FC of San Antonio.
Winning the conference championship matches the Heat’s run from 2018 when it went 10-0-0 in the regular season and won the conference title before falling in the regional finals. A victory Wednesday would mark the club’s deepest run in the NPSL, but it has to go all the way with four more victories to match the national championship run in 2007 in the Premier Development League.
“It is good to get the first job done. The whole job is not finished, so we are taking it day by day and game by game,” Heat goalkeeper Connor Durant said. “Getting the conference final feels good, and now we forget about that and move on to the next one. We’re going a little farther to Tulsa, Oklahoma. We just have to adhere, adapt to the conditions and go from there. We’ll play our game and control what we can control.”
With its 210 scoreless minutes of postseason play, Laredo’s defense is on a stretch of 347 consecutive minutes plus added time without allowing a goal. The Heat have recorded three straight clean sheets and are up to eight in 14 games this season. Laredo ranks as the No. 1 defense in the NPSL by a wide margin at 0.57 goals per game. The next closest teams are Tulsa and Med City FC with an 0.79 average.
“It feels good. It gives confidence to the whole team,” Durant said. “It’s not just me and the back line. It takes all 11 of us to keep the goals out. We can do that and we got three ourselves, so our confidence keeps on rising. I don’t think we’ve peaked yet, and that’s good.”
Just like the Heat, Tulsa (11-1-2) started the playoffs with a shootout win after a scoreless draw, and just like Laredo it got rolling offensively in the Heartland Conference championship match winning 5-1 over the OKC 1889 FC. It matched a season high as the team had three other 5-1 matches during the regular season. The Athletics are averaging 2.9 goals this season.
“You’re never going to lose if you don’t give up a goal. We’ll be tested. Everyone is going to be a bigger test than the one before,” Powell said. “We have two clean sheets and over 200 minutes of postseason football and even more beyond that without allowing a goal. That’s always going to be our focus. We will be extremely hard to break down and be all committed. All 11 guys on the pitch are going to defend and give their all. I trust them.”
The Athletics have not allowed more than two goals in any match this season, while Laredo has scored three or more goals in seven games. The Heat are averaging 2.4 goals despite being kept out of the net in the regular season finale and the playoff opener. The offense got back on track Saturday with goals from Kristian Colaci, Jose Rivera and Roberto Ordonez. Colaci leads the Heat with nine goals, and Ordonez is second with five goals while leading the team with five assists.
“There are so many factors that led into that little goalless drought we had. The coaching staff never panicked about it,” Powell said. “We knew we just needed to get a proper session or two in that final third. We worked extremely hard before the final, and it paid its dividends. Everyone is contributing to goals this year, and they will go in with the same mentality. They will trust themselves and take their chances, and we’ll have another chance to do the job if we can take care of business on Wednesday.”
Tulsa is into the regional semifinals for the third straight season and the fifth time since 2013. The Athletic are unbeaten at home this season at 7-0-1 while outscoring opponents 22-4.
“What I see is a really good group of players that play in a tough environment and consistently get results,” Powell said. “We have proven over the summer that we should be in the conversation with these guys. They are hosting us and a higher seed, but we’re going to go in there and give them everything we have.”
If the Heat win Wednesday, they will advance to the regional finals and take on the winner between the Jacksonville Armada FC U-23 (13-0-1) and the Naples United FC (6-4-2). Laredo would either travel if Jacksonville advances or host if Naples can upset the No. 1 team in the NPSL.
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