In a matchup of two of the top teams in the Lone Star Conference, the winner between the Denton Diablos and the Laredo Heat took a big step toward qualifying for the National Premier League Soccer playoffs.
In a mostly-defensive showdown Thursday, June 23, at the North Texas Soccer and Track & Field Stadium, it was the Heat that grabbed the crucial three points with a 3-1 victory to take over second place in the LSC.
The Diablos (5-2-1, 16 points) had to make several last-minute lineup changes before the game, which Denton head coach Ramon Raya said contributed to the sporadic play at times. Regardless, he didn’t get too down on the loss.
“It was just another game,” Raya said. “It’s a good rivalry. I love it. We only had one forward and I had to change the starting lineup two minutes before the game. We have to step up. It’s just another game. It’s only three points…They’re a good team. They’re not just one of the best teams in the conference, but in the league.”
Laredo (6-1-1, 19 points) carried the initial wave of possession and that translated to the first goal of the game in the 19th minute.
It was a great individual effort from Laredo’s Jordan Mase, who came from the right side of the top of the box and cut interior to set up his grade-A chance.
Mase then laced a rope just inside the right post past the diving Denton keeper Jacob Pettigrew to give Laredo the 1-0 lead.
Denton nearly had an answer two minutes later, but the Diablos couldn’t get their shots on goal. That changed as the first half progressed.
In the 32nd minute, the Diablos started to put the pieces together.
After a slick pass from Carlos Santamaria found Adan Garcia in the box, Garcia crossed over a Laredo defender to his left and slipped a deceptive shot off the outside of his right foot inside the right post past the frozen Laredo keeper.
That tied the game at 1-1 and the Diablos continued to lean on the Heat as the half wound down. Denton strung together more passes and consistently tested the Laredo keeper with multiple chances.
Defensively, the Denton defenders made deft plays on the ball in the box without fouling to neutralize the Heat threats.
Denton’s Julian Barajas nearly popped home a goal before halftime with a point-blank shot in the middle of the box, but the Laredo keeper made a positional save to his left to keep the score at 1-1.
Each team earned a corner during stoppage time, but neither posed significant threats on their crosses into traffic.
“We had so many chances before and after our goal,” Raya said. “It’s not about chances. It’s about scoring, but if you saw the chances we had, we were playing better. I’m happy because this is the first time we were playing this system.”
The first portion of the second half saw both teams lock down defensively, but in the blink of an eye, Laredo came up with a magical play to claim a 2-1 lead in the 70th minute.
Laredo’s Erwin Regules made a great move toward the left post and right as he was heading out of bounds, he sent a perfect, arching pass over two Diablos defenders and the leaping Pettigrew to Masaya Sekiguchi, who sent a header into the wide-open net to restore the Heat’s lead.
“They were doing long balls and counter-attacks and sometimes it works,” Raya said. “We got tired and we didn’t have the right people to make some substitutions.”
Denton earned its fifth corner of the game in the 76th minute, but much like its first four bids, the Diablos were unable to muster a threat on goal. This time, Denton was called for a foul and the Diablos couldn’t test the Laredo keeper.
In the 85th minute, Laredo put the nail in the coffin as the Heat used a pretty passing play to find Mase, who made a deft touch around the attacking Pettigrew and deposited it into the empty net to extend the Heat lead to 3-1 and close out the win.
As the Diablos turn their attention toward their playoff push, beginning with a road tilt against Austin FC on Thursday, June 30, Raya said his team needs to do a better job capitalizing on the opportunities it creates in the final four games of the regular season.
“If you don’t have people that are used to playing forward, they are not confident scoring, but we were creating chances and kept possession,” Raya said. “We were playing well. Some subs worked and some didn’t work. We were tired and we didn’t have people in the right position at times. We lost and for me [this game] is over. We need to improve for the next game because the season isn’t over and we still have to qualify for the playoffs.”