Empire, 16-Year-Old Garza Host San Diego Sunday

by Gunnar Berndt

Attacking prospect: “Want to show what we’re capable of, get win for our fans”

Ontario, Calif. — As the Empire Strykers’ early preparations for the 2024-25 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) season roll on during the final stretch of the club’s current campaign, the Southern Californians have been garnering widespread attention for the rise of a teen phenom among their ranks. With 3-16-1 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Empire eliminated from playoff contention, 16-year-old Kai Garza’s play in his recent professional debut provides added reason for optimism among a fan base whose patience has been tested by the trials and tribulations of a young squad built for long-term success.

Coming off last week’s away defeat at San Diego, Garza and company are set to face the Sockers at home this coming Sunday, March 17, at 4:05 p.m. PT. Tickets to the rivalry clash at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here. All the action will stream live and exclusively on CBS Sports Golazo Network, which may be accessed for free on CBSSports.com, Paramount+, or connected TVs and mobile devices via the CBS Sports app or Pluto TV. A complete channel guide for upcoming MASL games is here.

In their March 10 meeting with the Sockers, the Strykers fell 3-10 courtesy of a subpar second quarter as well as standout shifts from opposition players Tavoy Morgan, Charlie Gonzalez, Cesar Cerda, and Boris Pardo. While Morgan and Gonzalez each bagged four points, defender Cerda finished the match with three, and ‘keeper Pardo boasted 16 saves and a .862 save percentage.

Although Strykers star Marco Fabián saw his impressive goalscoring streak snapped at 16 games, the Mexican was among those lucky enough to witness history in person, as a teammate less than half his age bagged a helper in his maiden MASL game. Having been announced as the Strykers’ latest signing shortly before kickoff, forward Garza one-touched the ball into space for Quenton Swift, who blasted it across the goal from the right and into the side netting. Kai Garza is believed to be the youngest player to ever take the field or earn a point since the league’s inception in 2014.

“To me, the scoreline didn’t tell the whole story,” said the attacking prospect. “We had many good moments and a lot of shots on goal. You could tell that we can be better as a team if we work on some things. When I first went in, it was difficult because San Diego is very good. I’d say it took me that shift to adapt. After that, I started to feel much better. When I saw Q’s shot go in the net, I was so excited. It felt amazing to get the assist on such a great goal. Throughout the game, I just tried to give it my all and show what I have to offer. I’m happy that I did okay and didn’t shy away from anything.”

A protégé of Paul Wright’s well before Wright took over as Empire’s head coach last fall, Garza began training with the Strykers during preseason, not putting much weight on Wright telling him that depending on how he fit in with the grown-ups, he might at some point be able to get his feet wet. Then, about two weeks before his debut, fellow San Diegan Wright gave the Japanese-American a heads up that his chance would come in the event of the Strykers being eliminated from postseason contention.

“I was always rooting for my teammates, but when we were officially out of it, I realized I might actually play,” recalled Garza. “That’s when I started to feel very nervous. As I kept training, I became more calm. The other guys were very supportive. Even before the game, in the locker room and during warm-ups, they kept checking on me and making sure I felt good. I remember Izzy (Sesay) told me about his experience of first playing for the LA Galaxy. All that made it a lot easier for me to overcome my nerves.”

Having recently loaned two of its most productive players to Tacoma in Justin Stinson and Stefan Mijatovic, Empire has seen several up-and-comers besides Garza play expanded roles. Pior to its loss to the Sockers, the club fell 4-6 to the visiting Chihuahua Savage.

Among the remaining Strykers, Israel “Izzy” Sesay has the most blocked opposition shots (20), ahead of fellow defender Momo Gueye (17). Meanwhile, Fabián is his side’s attacking engine. The two-time FIFA World Cup veteran is tied for second league-wide in goals (26) and power play goals (5) as well as tied for sixth in points (38) and points-per-game average (2.2 in 17 games). Alan Perez is runner-up on Empire in points (17) and points-per-game average (0.9 in 19 games), in addition to jointly ranking second in goals with Gerardo Jurado (8 each). Gueye has the second-most assists on the team (10).

Even before the recent clash with the Sockers, Empire prospect Garza was no stranger to Phil Salvagio’s men. The son of a Japanse mother and an American serviceman father, Garza calls both Fukuoka, Japan and San Diego home. Having lived near the Sockers’ home venue, Pechanga Arena, the teenager has attended a number of games. Additionally, he played in the Strykers’ futsal showcase against Head Coach Phil Salvagio’s men as part of the United Soccer Coaches Convention ‘24 in Anaheim this past January.

“That game gave me an even better idea of how good they are on the ball,” said Garza. “Coach Paul then told me before the game at San Diego to play like it was training. Instead of thinking it was my first pro appearance, or that people were there to see me, I tried to focus on doing what I always do. It really helped. Having now analyzed the game, we all know what we need to work on. Our finishing has to be better. When the shots are pretty even but we get outscored like that, I see an issue. But we mainly lacked in our transition from attack to defense. If we can defend well for an entire game, we can beat teams like San Diego.”

While Empire has dropped eight straight, half of the defeats came by two goals or less. With the Southern Californians sitting in fifth in the West, getting a win on Sunday would go a long way toward keeping last-place Dallas at bay. A mere two points behind, the Sidekicks have a game in hand on the Strykers.

In the Sockers, Empire faces a traditional MASL giant. After winning the 2021-22 title, Empire’s long time rivals played a dominant 2022-23 regular season, entering the playoffs atop the West with a 22-2-0 record. They would go on to lose a dramatic knockout series to eventual champion Chihuahua Savage.

Once again headed to the playoffs this time around, 16-4-0 San Diego holds a comfortable conference lead. The club recently got some relief via its big win over the Strykers, with injuries having taken a toll of late. Prior to downing Empire, the Sockers fell 4-5 to visiting Chihuahua, which maintains an outside chance of stealing first place. The Savage trails San Diego by eight points, holding a game in hand. Empire has lost its previous four meetings with its California rival this season, two of them at home and two on the road.

The Sockers attack is jointly led by Tavoy Morgan and Brandon Escoto. Morgan is third in the league in assists (20), fifth in points-per-game average (2.3 in 18 games), and tied for second in points (41), with Escoto sitting tied for fourth in goals (24) and tied for ninth in points (37). The duo’s teammate and ex-Empire ace Charlie Gonzalez is tied for ninth in assists (15) and tied for eighth in power play goals (3). San Diego legend Kraig Chiles (4) ranks tied for fifth in the latter category. While currently injured, another former Strykers man, Leanardo DeOliveira, is tied for tenth in points-per-game average (2.0 in 10 games).

Morgan sits second on the team in goals (21), and a trio of attackers share third in points-per-game average, among them one more with an Empire background and nursing an injury in Gabriel Costa (1.9 in 11 games). The other two are Escoto (1.9 in 19 games) and Gonzalez (1.9 in 16 games). Cesar Cerda is tied for the MASL lead in short-handed goals (2), with fellow veteran defender Guerrero Pino tops among all Sockers players in blocked opposition shots (31) and Mitchell Cardenas (25) in the runner-up position.

“The main thing about San Diego is their experience,” said the Strykers’ Garza. “They have mostly veterans who have been around for a very long time. A lot of us are in our first season in the league. That makes a huge difference. But I honestly think that after the rebuild last offseason, we will have an amazing team in the next few years. On Sunday, we want to show what we’re capable of and get a win for our fans.”

In concluding his remarks, the forward provided more evidence of his maturity and character, insisting on recognizing those who have have played key roles in his journey to logging MASL minutes at 16 years old.

“I’d like to send a huge thanks to Coach Paul,” said Garza. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am. He has helped me improve in every aspect of the game and has changed how I view it. Also, thank you to my parents, who have been there from the start and have always supported me. Finally, a huge thanks to the team. They’ve treated me like family since day one, despite me being young and making a lot of mistakes at first. Instead of getting mad, they tried to teach me. Because of that, I now love indoor soccer.”

Kai Garza and the Empire Strykers host visiting rivals San Diego Sockers on Sunday, March 17. Tickets to the clash at Toyota Arena in Ontario are available here.