The NPSL National Championship is coming to the Dallas Fort-Worth Metroplex on Saturday as Denton Diablos host the biggest game in the team’s short history.
The Diablos, completing only their second full season, will host Tulsa Athletic in what will be geographically the closest final in league history between two teams separated by less than 250 miles.
“We are humbled and honored to host the NPSL National Championship in just our second year of competing,” Denton Diablos FC Co-Owner Damon Gochneaur said. “But it’s a testament to the hard work and dedication of our talented group of players and outstanding leader of men, Ramon Raya. We are extremely excited to showcase and introduce the gem that is Denton to the entire NPSL.”
Both outfits compete in NPSL’s South Region, but the Diablos won the West Region title due to an odd number of conferences.
Tulsa arrives in DFW, having already made a successful trip to the MetroPlex earlier this season beating Dallas City 7-0 in McKinney. Athletic finished second in the Heartland Conference with a 6-1-3 record.
In a repeat of the 2019 season, Tulsa defeated Demize NPSL to seal the Heartland Conference championship. That season, they went on to beat Fort Worth Vaqueros before losing to eventual National Champions Miami FC in the South Region Final.
This time, Tulsa has gone a couple of rounds further, sealing the South Region title with a 120th-minute winner against Southern States SC, before blanking Baltimore Christos FC 1-0 away from home in the national semifinal.
Denton eased its way through the Lonestar Conference, finishing top with an impressive 8-1-1 record, before avenging their only loss of the season to the Laredo Heat in the Lonestar Conference final. An important home advantage came with that record, ensuring that FC Golden State would make the journey to Denton for the West Region Final, before sealing an extra-time win in Cleveland last weekend.
“It was something that was actually discussed really early in the season that winning the conference is great, but it’s how you win as well that can dictate the rest of the season if you want to go deep into the tournament,” said Denton Diablos captain Eoin Wearen about the home advantage earned through most of the playoff run. “We were very aware a good run in our conference would benefit us later in the tournament, and that’s proven to be the case.”
Trevor Amann has been the man of the moment for Ramon Raya’s side, notching seven goals while scoring in each post-season game to take his overall tally to 13. Sam Coad sits behind on eight after recording a hat-trick in the 7-0 win over Katy FC in the conference semifinals.
On the other end, Joseph Garcia leads Tulsa with eight goals, but only has one playoff goal to his name, in the all-Oklahoma affair that was the Heartland Conference semifinal.
Denton isn’t the first local team to have made it all the way to the National Championship game. Midland-Odessa Sockers fell 5-0 in the 2017 final against Elm City Express in New Naven, CT.
Miami FC are the reigning NPSL champions, winning in 2018 and 2019 before the COVID-19 pandemic canceled the 2020 season.
The NPSL Championship game will kick off at 7:30 pm on Saturday, August 7, at Denton High School. The NPSL National Championship will be streamed by Eleven Sports.
Road to the National Championship
Conf SF – 7-0 vs Katy FC
Conf F – 3-1 vs Laredo Heat
W Region – 4-2 vs FC Golden State
National SF – 4-3 (AET) @ Cleveland SC
Conf SF – 2-2 (5-4 on PKs) vs OKC 1889 FC
Conf F – 2-1 @ Demize NPSL
S Region – 2-1 (AET) vs Southern States SC
National SF – 1-0 @ Baltimore Christos FC
Denton’s preparation began ten months ago after Chad Rakestraw chose to step down as head coach, having led the club since its birth in late 2018. Ramon Raya, a former Liga MX striker and coach of both the Mexico futsal and beach soccer teams, was the man to step into the role. Raya made an early impression on his players.
“Going back to September when we met him for the first time, you could see straight away that he’s a winner,” explained Wearen of Raya. “He has high expectations and demands. He’s not in any competition unless he’s in it to win it. That kind of mentality was there in the Roja League, and even though there are probably only six or seven players carrying over from the Roja League to the NPSL season, for the younger new guys that came in, I think it rubbed off on them as well.”
Strong preparation for a return to NPSL action in 2021 came with the Roja League over the winter months. The Diablos would win January’s final against FC Harrington (now DKSC) with a 2-0 scoreline.
The NPSL season got off to a positive start with a 2-0 win against Katy FC followed by a dominant Chisholm Trail Clasico with back-to-back games against the Fort Worth Vaqueros producing an aggregate score of 12-5 in Denton’s favor.
Wearen mentioned that the performances began to dip, and the next couple of weeks would produce a wake-up call. A Thursday night in Laredo was the setting for the only loss to date – a 3-0 result against Laredo Heat, was followed by escaping Brownsville with a narrow 5-4 win and a 2-2 draw at home to Midland-Odessa Sockers.
“I think that kind of rejuvenated everybody to realize we can’t go out there and just walk off the field thinking that we’re better than teams,” Wearen added. “We need to make sure that we keep that mentality that nobody’s as hard-working as us.”
Denton stormed through the remainder of the season, sealing the top spot in the regular-season table and finishing with the eighth-best record of the 76 teams nationally.
In the playoffs, A 7-0 drubbing of Katy FC was followed by a Lone Star Conference final against a tough Laredo Heat side. The Diablos avenged that sole defeat in the regular season and a ticket to the West Region final.
FC Golden State didn’t seem phased by the trip from LA to DFW for the West Region Final, taking a two-goal lead into halftime.
James Doyle pulled one back early in the second period before three goals in the final 15 minutes sent Coach Raya’s side through to the national playoffs.
14 of the team’s last 30 goals have come later than the 75th minute, compared to only three of the remaining 21, hammering home Eoin Wearen’s point about outworking the opposition.
Much like Tulsa Athletic, Denton Diablos traveled to an undefeated opponent in the final four. Tulsa came away from former US Open Cup darlings Baltimore Christos FC with a 1-0 win, but Denton’s game with Cleveland SC wouldn’t be so cut and dry. The Diablos took a 2-0 lead in the opening ten minutes before the hosts clawed their way back late in the first half. Brandon Cerda and Trevor Amann’s 13th goal of the season finished the job in extra time to set up a National Championship in Little D.
As with all semi-pro outfits, a small number of people wear a lot of hats. Owner Damon Gochneaur is certainly one of those people, and his passion for the project has definitely rubbed off on the team.
“Damon’s influence is massive in terms of his passion for the game,” said West Ham United academy product Wearen. “You know his passion for, for the city of Denton, and how much he wants to help youth soccer, semi-pro soccer, even professional soccer. He just wants to get behind the game here.”