It took penalties, but the Laredo Heat got their vengeance Saturday night in the first-ever Premier Development League Championship rematch, winning the title 4-3 in a six-round penalty kick tiebreaker after a scoreless draw against the Michigan Bucks side that beat them on the same field a year ago 2-1. Seventeen-year-old Felix Garcia would strike the winner in the dramatic shootout.
Smothered by the intense Texas heat, both sides came out at a slower pace than last year's final which saw two goals in the first eight minutes. Laredo had the earlier chances with two headers on goal in the first nine minutes, but Michigan keeper Steve Clark made easy catches to keep the hosts off the board.
Defense would become the story of the match as the second-ranked Laredo back line and the Michigan defensive unit, tied for sixth-best in the league, would keep their composure and limit the quality of chances throughout the remainder of the game despite the intense pressure of the temperature.
In the 56th minute, the Bucks avoided a scare when defender Mike Holody slid into the goal to clear the ball off the line after Raul Quinones had gotten past the defense and headed a high bouncer that came from midfield to the far post past Clark, who was coming off his line to challenge on the play.
In the 62nd minute Michigan's Nate Jafta, streaking down the left side of the penalty area, hit a well-struck ball from 15 yards that challenged Heat goalkeeper Ryan Cooper, who made the stop.
In the 18th minute of overtime, Laredo's Juan de Dios Ibarra nearly provided the game-winner when a headed clearance by the Michigan defense fell right to him. He one-timed a shot out of the air from the penalty arc only to see it carom off the crossbar and keep the match in a stalemate.
With three minutes remaining in overtime, Clark made a spectacular leaping save on a header from inside the box to send it over the goal and, ultimately, force penalty kicks to decide a winner. With the draw, he would finish the year unbeaten with a record of 13-0-5, including playoffs.
Clark was the hero for Michigan heading to the spot kicks, but it was Cooper winning the duel between the pipes in the tiebreaker as he registered two saves to Clark's one as it went six rounds and finished 4-3 in favor of the hosts. His efforts would garner PDL Championship MVP honors.
Michigan's Nic Djokic and Laredo's Daniel Galvan would convert in the opening round before Laredo took a 2-1 lead on a miss off the underside of the crossbar by Xavier Balc and a goal from Carlos Ordaz. The tiebreaker would level out in the following round with Isaac Morales missing wide left after Kyle Brunner scored for Michigan. Mauro Fuzetti and Silas Blackwell each scored in the next round with Holody, on a slow roller to the right, and Ibarra, on a waist-high effort just off-center to the left, both having their fifth round shots stopped, sending it to sudden death.
Cooper initially stopped Kenny Uzoigwe's sixth round shot, a weak effort off a cramping leg, only to have it redone due premature departure off his line. The cramp proved too much for Uzoigwe, however, as Ian Daniel had to step to the spot for the Bucks in his place. Cooper would make a diving save in response to a lengthy wait as trainers worked on the Michigan star, who is headed to USL First Division Charleston, as he laid on the pitch in the box.
The teenage Garcia, who scored the 1-0 semifinal winner off the bench against the Fresno Fuego and another 1-0 winner on the road late in the regular season, became the star of the night as he buried the winning spot kick in the sixth round in front of 6,600 frenzied fans.
It was storybook ending for a club that was founded just four years ago with the intention of providing the youth of Laredo an elite competitive soccer outlet that did not previously exist in the border town.
USL First Division
The top flight of USL was all about goalkeepers this week with 10 shutout performances in 10 games. Leading the charge in the headlines were Montreal's Matt Jordan and Rochester's Scott Vallow, who recorded shutouts in their returns from lengthy absences due to injury. Jordan returned wearing a mask to protect his broken jaw in a 0-0 tie against Miami and Vallow posted two clean sheets for 2-0 wins over Carolina and Puerto Rico, becoming the Rhinos all-time regular season win leader. Also recording two shutouts on the week was Portland netminder Josh Wicks, whose performances were critical in a pair of scoreless draws against Minnesota and Vancouver.
Atlanta shutout Puerto Rico 3-0 Friday with rival Charleston blanking California 1-0 on Saturday. Minnesota and Seattle played a 2-2 thriller Saturday with a four-goal second half in which Seattle scored the equalizer in the final minute of the game. On Sunday, Atlanta registered a 3-1 win in Miami and Minnesota closed their three-game northwest swing with a third consecutive draw, 1-1, in Vancouver.
USL Second Division
The USL Second Division regular season came to a close this weekend featured by the top two clubs squaring off Saturday for the regular season title and the top seed in the postseason. The defending champion Richmond Kickers remained in first with a 1-1 draw against the Cleveland City Stars, who managed to hold onto second with third place Harrisburg falling 1-0 to fifth-place finishers Crystal Palace Baltimore Saturday.
In other matches, the playoff-bound Charlotte Eagles downed Bermuda 4-1 Friday. The Hogges also fell 1-0 at Western Mass Tuesday and 3-0 to Wilmington in the USL-2 regular season finale on a Brian Cvilikas hat-trick. Cincinnati was rocked 6-1 in Western Mass Friday, but bounced back for a 3-1 win in New Hampshire Saturday.