Resiliency is not a characteristic the Laredo Heat Soccer Club had to rely on in a perfect debut regular season in the National Premier Soccer League during which it never even trailed. However, the Heat proved this week they have resiliency to fall back on opening the postseason with a pair of comeback victories.
Laredo faced and overcame an unprecedented challenge Saturday at Dustdevil Field rallying from its first multi-goal deficit of the season. The Heat rallied with four straight goals winning the Lone Star Conference championship with a 4-3 overtime victory over the Houston Dutch Lions FC.
“It just shows the resilience. We’ve never been down two goals,” Laredo Heat owner Shashi Vaswani said. “It’s so much resilience. So much credit goes to the coach for making the adjustments. I can’t say enough about the players. The Dutch Lions are a great team and played us hard. My hat is off to them. It’s one of those games it’s a shame somebody had to lose, and I’m glad we came out on the right side of that.”
“It was intense. This group has had just incredible belief all season,” Laredo Heat coach Dana Taylor said. “I’m glad for the Vaswani family. It was a great season if it had gone 10-1 or 11-1, but to be 12-0 and win the regular season and postseason and cap off an incredible year is great. The way we did that tonight was great.”
The Heat (12-0-0) previously did not allow more than one goal in any game this season. They had held opponents to two goals in six National Premier Soccer League home games, and Houston (9-4-0) matched that by the 23rd minute Saturday. Laredo went the entire regular season without trailing, and its first deficit lasted less than two minutes in Wednesday’s playoff opener before rallying to beat the Fort Worth Vaqueros 3-1.
Ziyad Fares and Petteri Pietola helped the Heat turn things around in the second half generating steady pressure and scoring the first and tying goals, respectively. Tor Trosten was the hero in the first overtime scoring twice in a span of five minutes as Laredo went from a two-goal deficit to a two-goal lead.
“It was great. It was all a team effort, no individuals,” Fares said. “Coach always talks about pencils: When you put them together, they are hard to break. When it is single, you can snap it easily. It was that simple. It was just teamwork and everybody believing. At halftime losing 2-0, we knew we could still come back. They scored two and we knew we could score three. We just kept going.”
“I have to say it is one of the craziest games I have ever played in, and also being a conference final, it is hard to put into words,” Pietola said. “I just went crazy when we scored the goals. I had a belief in us. We changed our tactic a little bit in the second half. When they half started with me and Z on top, we played well together. We started to create a lot of chances.”
Saturday marked the third straight game where Laredo failed to score in the first half. In the two wins over the Vaqueros, the Heat dominated possession but came up empty on the way to scoreless draws at halftime. Against the Dutch Lions, they faced steady pressure and trailed 2-0 at the break.
A turnover in the fifth minute didn’t amount to anything as a quick shot by Oumar Fofana went well wide right. However, Arthur Rogers caught Laredo off guard with a quick shot from well beyond the box three minutes later scoring in the lower right side for a 1-0 lead.
Houston intensified the pressure with a successful penalty kick in the 20th minute. TAMIU’s Carlos Herrera - named Friday as the Lone Star Conference’s top goalkeeper - guessed wrong diving to his left as Rogers fired the ball into the opposite side for his second goal and a 2-0 lead.
Faced with their only multi-goal deficit of the season, the Heat continued to struggle with maintaining possession. Herrera made key saves down the stretch in the first half to avoid extending the unprecedented deficit. He grabbed a header to the top right corner in the 37th minute. Only a minute later, a header missed to the left by the Dutch Lions led to a quick shot to the lower left corner, but Herrera made a diving save. Houston had one more chance in the 43rd minute, but Jacob Powell sent a shot high from the dead center of the box.
Laredo had one chance to cut the deficit in half in added time. Pietola was tackled near the bottom left corner of the box for a free kick, but a header off the corner kick went high and out.
“We are making it a lot more dramatic than it needs to be, but we got out of it and that’s the important thing,” Trosten said.
“I looked at them at halftime and said I believed and you have to trust me that this is how we’re going to do it,” Taylor said. “We were going to break the game down into three 15-minute periods. We were going to get a goal in the first 15. Then we were going to work and get that second one and win it towards the end of the game. Every guy that went on was able to give a little bit more and take us to the next level.”
The Heat went beyond Taylor’s 15-minute plan before breaking through, but they turned up the intensity immediately generating consistent scoring chances. They earned six corner kicks in the first 19 minutes before scoring off the seventh a minute later.
Laredo’s biggest missed opportunity came when Fares got beyond the goalkeeper in the 52nd minute but was tackled in the box for a penalty kick. Houston made the save on the penalty kick by Laredo College’s Gabriel Rodriguez. Four minutes later, Fares raced up the right side and sent a center cross to Pietola who shot it off the left post.
Fares put the Heat on the board in the 67th minute as Houston’s attempt to head the ball away on a corner kick went the wrong way. Fares was ready and waiting in the box and fired it in to cut the deficit in half.
“It was great. It was tough to get that first one,” Fares said. “We just kept hitting the post and we missed a penalty, but the guys didn’t lose focus. They kept believing and we got one in.”
“That’s the one that you need,” Taylor said. “The problem was we should have finished that PK and it would’ve been that much easier. Then it started coming together. We kept the pressure on. It was building and building, then you get the first goal and everybody believes. You get that second goal and everyone believes even more so.”
Another deflection off a post benefitted Laredo eight minutes later. After Fares shot into the right post, Pietola raced in for the rebound. He was out of position from making sure he stayed onsides on the shot, but the ball bounced off his ankle and slowly trickled back into the lower right corner to tie the game in the 75th minute.
“I thought Z was going to slide it to me so I was making a move, but I saw he was shooting so I had to watch out for the offsides,” Pietola said “The ball came to the right side of the goal and I was running there, then it changed to the other side, so I jumped back and quickly hit the ball. I felt it hit my ankle badly, and the whole world stopped. I was like, ‘Please go in.’ It went in and I didn’t know how to celebrate. I was so shocked. It was a crazy goal. After that I knew we were going to win. The momentum was with us.”
“The whole crowd went quiet for those two seconds, then they went crazy,” Fares said. “It was awesome. It was crazy. Everyone just stood there watching it go in. It was great.
We deserved it. We came in winning every game. We deserved it. We just fell asleep those first 15 minutes, but we came back.”
Herrera came up big in added time deflecting a point blank shot high, saving another shot and grabbing a corner kick. With the Dutch Lions coming off a 3-2 overtime win on Wednesday, the Heat had not only the momentum but the edge in energy heading to overtime.
“Even after the missed penalty, I knew we were going to score,” Pietola said. “When we scored the first one, the panic goes to the other team. Then I scored to tie it up. I was seeing Houston was a little bit shaky after that. Even though we didn’t score again in the regular time, I knew we were going to score. They went through two overtimes already the game before this. Of course they were going to be more tired than us.”
The Heat took their first lead six minutes into overtime as a corner kick from the right made it through traffic to Trosten at the top left of the box. He sent a line drive high into the right corner for a 3-2 lead.
“It’s always great to see the goal go in,” Trosten said. “It feels great. We just have to get the goal and put some more pressure on them. The moment their head goes down, we can play our game. It’s just fun out there.”
Trosten and the Heat needed only five more minutes to complete the 39-minute journey from a two-goal deficit to a two-goal lead. Fares cut into the middle of the field and fired a pass to a streaking Trosten at the top of the box. The pass got him past the back line and one-on-one with the goalkeeper. He cut to the left and shot to the lower-left corner for a 4-2 advantage.
“Z got the ball and ran across,” Trosten said. “He split me in, and I was one-on-one with the keeper. I just put it to the side of him.”
“That was part of the game plan. The guys that had the energy needed to come in and bring that energy to it,” Taylor said. “He’s a great striker of the ball. He was able to get around the goal and make it happen. He’s been doing that all year. I just didn’t want to use him too early since I felt it could go to overtime.”
Yinka Lawal gave the Dutch Lions hope with a goal in the 104th minute. Houston had a couple shots from there, but the Heat controlled the ball most of the time down the stretch to secure the conference championship.
“I was so happy for the guys because they worked their way back,” Taylor said. “It’s a testimony of hard work, not giving up and comradery. It was a group coming together, believing in a task and seeing it through.”
The Heat face a quick turnaround with the NPSL South Region semifinals Saturday. However, a short turnaround after an overtime game will not put them at a disadvantage. As the No. 1 seed in the NPSL, Laredo has homefield advantage for as many of the potential four games remaining it can advance to, and its opponent is also coming off a lengthy game. The Little Rock Rangers (9-3) beat Wichita FC (8-3-1) for the Heartland Conference title winning 5-3 on penalty kicks after a scoreless regulation and overtime. The Heat and Rangers play at 8:15 p.m. Tuesday at Dustdevil Field.
“Now we just have to revamp and get ready for Tuesday when Little Rock comes in,” Taylor said. “This is good, but it’s now over for me. I’ll let these guys enjoy it until after the World Cup and then it’s all about business.”