The Laredo Heat Soccer Club rallied in the second half for a third straight postseason game Tuesday, but its bid for perfection ended with a 2-1 overtime loss at TAMIU’s Dustdevil Field against the Little Rock Rangers in the National Premier Soccer League South Region semifinals.
The loss ended a 12-game run of perfection for the Heat that included a 10-0-0 regular season and comeback victories last week to lock up the Lone Star Conference championship. Their debut season in the NPSL ends three games away from the national championship.
“It was a tough match to swallow,” Laredo Heat owner Shashi Vaswani said. “I think it is amazing. We were undefeated in the regular season and had two really tough games to get to the conference championship. I’m disappointed for our Lone Star Conference teams because we clearly outplayed these guys. We should have moved on and we disappointed them also, but coach and the players did a tremendous job.
“We have to live with the loss. Somebody has to win and somebody has to lose. It will take us a few weeks to absorb that, and we’ll come back stronger next year.”
I was a tough match to swallow for the players as well with several laying on the field for several minutes after the final whistle. After getting up, they went over to thank the estimated crowd of 1,100 and cheered on by the fans in return.
“We had great crowd support this year, probably the best we’ve had,” Vaswani said. “We hope to build on that, keep going and get soccer some notoriety.”
“I’m proud of these guys. They are now a family,” Laredo Heat head coach Dana Taylor said. “They are going to have each other’s phone numbers. They will be close. They will see each other at different times of the year through playing each other or whatever. It was an awesome experience. The Vaswani family poured out their hearts on this team, and these guys for sure appreciated that. I did as well.”
Laredo made the championship game in four of its 11 seasons in the PDL and won it all in 2007, and it was attempting to the same in its first year in the NPSL following a two-year hiatus from competition. The Heat entered the playoffs as the No. 1 overall seed in the 98-team league by going 10-0-0 and edging fellow perfect squad New York Cosmos B 33-32 in goal differential. New York will take over as the top seed going forward if it can improve to 13-0-0 Wednesday with a win over FC Frederick.
“It’s hard for sure. I was telling the guys that this has been one of the most prolific summers I have had as a man,” Taylor said. “It’s an incredibly humbling experience. The guys gave so much of themselves. I learned a lot through them. I learned to trust a whole lot more. They thought me things about life that are awesome and I’ll take with me.”
After being held without a goal in the first half for the fourth straight game, the Heat (12-1-0) were in danger of being shut out for the first time late in regulation. They sustained steady pressure in the second half and allowed only one scoring chance for the Rangers (10-3-0). Little Rock nearly made it 2-0 in the 76th minute as a shot from the left of the box hit the right post and was headed in, but Heat goalkeeper Brandon Barnes popped the rebound up with is hand and secured the ball on his way to the ground.
Close calls and missed calls plagued the Heat as Laredo College’s Rodave Murray was tripped in the box in the 82nd minute but saw Little Rock awarded a goalie kick. A minute later, midfielders Ziyad Fares and Memo Diaz connected on a feed from right to left, but Diaz’s shot was saved. Those three all played a part five minutes later as the Heat broke through 43 minutes into the second half.
Fares crossed a ball from high right over to the left side of the box. Diaz got there in time to redirect the ball to the middle, and Murray beat the defenders to the ball. He fired a left-footed shot to the lower right corner of the net to even the score. Murray’s goal snapped a streak of six straight shutouts for the Rangers and Walid Birrou, the Heartland Conference Goalkeeper of the Year.
“They played hard and they fought hard. It’s just the way the ball bounces,” Taylor said. “They showed that all year. You can’t win 12 straight games and make it to the Sweet 16 of the national tournament without being resilient.”
“Watching that tying goal, it was a little deflating,” Little Rock Rangers head coach Will Montgomery said. “Guys were trying their best to defend, but Laredo came out with several chances. Thankfully my guys didn’t get down. They kept going and stayed with it.”
Neither team generated any chances in extra time and both teams headed to overtime for the second time in four days. Birrou came up big several times for Little Rock in overtime including the 11th minute when he knocked away Diaz’s shot into the top right corner. Murray nearly had a second goal three minutes later, but Birrou came deep out of the net in a one-on-one situation and reached up from the ground to knock the shot away. Barnes was also crucial to keeping Laredo alive making a diving grab just before the whistle at the end of the first overtime.
“Congratulations to our opponent, but we had so many sitters,” Taylor said. “That game should not have been what it ended up being. In the last four days we’ve gone into overtime twice, and when you do that it takes a lot out of your body. It weighs heavily on you.”
“It’s really tough on the guys’ bodies as a whole with the extra overtime,” Montgomery said. “They exerted themselves Saturday and have to do it again Tuesday.”
Birrou made a diving stop and grabbed the rebound in the 17th minute, and the Rangers pulled ahead two minutes later off a corner kick from the right. TAMIU’s Rafa Montabes blocked the first shot attempt, but the ball bounced to Donald Benamna at the top of the goal box and he scored on a shot high to the left for a 2-1 lead.
“We got a corner here and thankfully the ball got dropped down in the box,” Montgomery said. “Donald got on it and kicked it with his left foot for a great goal.”
Benamna left a sour note on the game in the second overtime. After going to the ground and calling for a trainer to stop play, Benamna began responding to the crowd’s cries to get up and off the field by smiling and blowing kisses once the referee looked away. When he left the field a couple minutes later, he continued interacting with the crowd and made disrespectful comments and gestures toward Heat owner Priya Vaswani including lifting his shirt and asking, “You want this?”
Birrou continued to deny the Heat in the second overtime. Their biggest chance came on a free kick from the top of the box in the 28th minute. Yudai Tashiro lined a shot on target to the left, but Birrou was there to knock it away. He made a diving save to his left two minutes later.
“I’m very pleased with how they played, especially in overtime,” Montgomery said. “Laredo was really pressing on in the second half and came out really strong to have some chances. My goalkeeper came up big with several big chances. He was impressive.”
The Rangers kept the ball out of their side of the field from there until the closing seconds when Barnes kicked deep up the left side. Diaz got there, but his shot went wide right and the ensuing goalie kick ran out the clock.
In the first half, the Rangers had the first scoring chance in the seventh minute on a cross from the left, but their header was deflected wide and Barnes grabbed the ensuing corner. Laredo’s first chance didn’t come until a shot by TAMIU’s David Martinez went wide in the 12th minute. He was tackled left of the box by the goalie two minutes later for a free kick, but Tashiro’s low kick into the center of the box was cleared out, and the ball was headed out of bounds on the corner kick.
Tor Trosten, who scored twice in overtime in Saturday’s 4-3 win, had a diving header attempt left of the net on a cross from the right that went high. Little Rock nearly countered two minutes later as a deflection went toward the net, but Barnes was there to clear it out. There was another close call in the 29th minute as Benamna picked off the ball near the top of the box. He veered to the left of the net and sent a shot on target to the right side, but Barnes made a diving save and quickly got up to corral the rebound.
After not trailing once in the regular season, the Heat fell behind for the third straight playoff game. The Rangers scored in the 32nd minute as Sabelo Hlongwane centered a pass from the right to Trevor Reed and he redirected it in for a 1-0 lead.
After a three-minute delay while the Little Rock goalie was attended to by a trainer, the Heat struck quickly when play resumed in the 40th minute feeding a pass deep up to Petteri Pietola who sent it just over the crossbar. A right-to-left cross from Joao Monteiro to Laredo College’s Gabriel Rodriguez led to a shot on goal two minutes later, and Tashiro sent a shot from deep just left of the net in the 44th minute for Laredo’s last chance of the half.
Little Rock advances to a matchup Saturday with Miami FC (9-1-3). The Sunshine Conference champions scored late Tuesday for a 2-1 win against the Southeast Conference champion Atlanta Silverbacks (7-5-3) and will host the matchup Saturday.