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Baptism by fire

Baptism by fire
By Adam Geigerman
Laredo Morning Times
Published: Tuesday, March 20, 2012 2:32 AM CDT
The Laredo Heat have constructed a sterling reputation built upon the name and ideals of the league it competes in — the Premier Development League.

With the focus being on development, team president Shashi Vaswani and general manager J.J. Vela have fielded a ferociously competitive team year in and year out, making the playoffs every season it was eligible and playing for four national championships — winning once, in 2007.

But on a more individual level, the Heat front office focuses on propelling its players to the highest soccer levels possible.

Their work has paid dividends in 2012, with a pair of stars from last year’s Southern Conference championship team progressing into top-tier soccer.

Defender and native Texan Leone Cruz entered Major League Soccer’s 2011 SuperDraft on Jan. 12, getting selected 21st overall by the Seattle Sounders.

He was a cut in the preseason, opting to play for the Heat last season before finding a home with Real Salt Lake this season.

His rights were traded from Seattle to RSL for Andy Rose on Jan. 17.

“The Laredo Heat has always helped me, you know, to progress with my career,” Cruz said.

“I saw so many great opportunities with that team and it was a special experience — both playing with and against them.

I truly see it as a privilege to have been a part of the team that set me up for my transition into the MLS.

“Laredo is a soccer-smart town with a top-notch soccer-minded team; I cherish my time there.”

Forward and former Incarnate Word standout Esteban Bayona is expected to be signed by the San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League as early as today after scoring a PDL third-best 13 goals in 16 games last season for the Heat.

Cruz’s path to the MLS wasn’t exactly the most tradionally traveled, but in he finds himself on a 2-0 RSL squad with convincing wins over the defending champion Los Angeles Galaxy and a star-studded New York Red Bulls team.

“We have a special team motto here in Salt Lake,” Cruz said.

“We don’t have any of the league’s leading $1 million players, but we say ‘The team is our star.’ That describes us pretty well.

“We just love to go out and play hard and compete with the best teams and players in America.”

Cruz was an unused substitute on the bench for both games, but saw competition against such soccer supernovas as David Beckham, Landon Donovan, Robby Keane, Thierry Henry, former Mexico captain Rafa Marquez, and fellow RSL teammate and USA defensive midfielder Kyle Beckerman.

“I have to admit, it’s pretty cool to play with and against those guys,” Cruz said. “They’re all such big names and great players.

It’s something I dreamt about as a kid, especially with Rafa; I used to watch him play for Mexico, and now I get to face him in the MLS.

It’s the same kind of thing with Beckham and Donovan too — you can’t be star struck against them, but it’s special to shake their hand after the match and say good game to them.”

Bayona teamed up with Heat offensive dynamo Felix Garcia — and stepped up during Garcia’s injury absence — to lead Laredo to its fourth PDL championship game in seven seasons last year. Bayona posted the third-best goal total, while tying for most games played (16) and finished with the sixth-highest points total (27). Bayona blasted 39 shots on goal last season.

“Esteban is an exciting player of the highest caliber,” Cruz said of his former teammate.

“His works hard and stays focused, two qualities that will certainly carry him far in this game.

He deserves where he’s at in his career and will hopefully keep climbing higher.”

Bayona and the Scorpions are set to open their season on April 7 versus the Atlanta Silverbacks in Atlanta, and then open their home campaign against the Puerto Rico Islanders on April 15 in San Antonio.

Cruz’s RSL next faces Chivas USA on Saturday, but doesn’t return to Texas until April 25 for a matchup versus FC Dallas.

RSL plays Houston once this season, on Sept. 6, in Houston.