Empire Battles for Playoff Hopes Against Stars, Ambush
‘Keeper Gomez: Must “start winning points” to stay in contention
Ontario, Calif. — Heading into another pair of back-to-back Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) games, the Empire Strykers are hanging on to their playoff hopes by a thread. With his side just outside the Western Conference postseason picture in fifth, Strykers ‘keeper Brandon Gomez emphasized the importance of every available point going forward. One way for Empire to avoid a third consecutive absence from the knockout rounds would be to overtake fourth-place Tacoma, Thursday’s adversary, which holds a six-point cushion and has two games in hand on Head Coach Paul Wright’s men.
The 2-8-0 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Strykers travel to take on the 4-4-0 Stars on January 25 at 7:05 p.m. PT, followed by a home match against the St. Louis Ambush on Sunday, January 28, at 4:05 p.m. PT. Tickets for the crucial clash with the Ambush are available here, and both upcoming games will be streamed live on Twitch. A full channel lineup for MASL broadcasts may be found here.
Thursday’s away meeting with the Stars is a classic six-pointer, as a fourth consecutive Strykers loss would put them at a nine-point disadvantage compared to both Tacoma and the third-place Chihuahua Savage, provided the Savage downs visiting bottom dwellers Dallas Sidekicks on Friday. Defending MASL champion Chihuahua has one game in hand on Empire.
The Strykers most recently fell 8-5 at home to long-time rival San Diego Sockers. The match featured a fiercely-contested opening half in which Sockers backstop Boris Pardo demonstrated why he is counted among the best in the league. Empire then fell victim to yet another subpar third-quarter performance, conceding five straight times, before battling back in the closing period and scoring the final four tallies.
“We looked really good in the first half and things were pretty even,” said Strykers netminder Gomez. “Hats off to Boris for making some great saves during that phase. We’re frustrated because it’s not the first time we’ve made rookie mistakes and struggled in the third quarter. I think I personally could have stopped one or two more shots to give us a better chance. To our credit, we woke up near the end. With one or two more minutes, who knows, maybe we would have tied it. If we can avoid having a poor stretch in every game, we’ll put ourselves in a much better position to get results.”
While Gomez is third in the league in saves (120), Empire’s defender-turned-forward Stefan Mijatovic sits eighth in blocked opposition shots (19), with defender Israel Sesay (11) holding second place in the Strykers’ internal ranking. Mexican star Marco Fabián is tied for sixth in the MASL in points-per-game average (2.3 in 7 games) and also leads his side in points (16). Mijatovic comes in second on Empire in both categories (1.3 in 10 games and 13 points, respectively) while sharing the team lead in goals with Justin Stinson (9 each). Fabián has the most assists of all Strykers players (8), followed by Gerardo Jurado (7).
Empire’s recent roster overhaul has seen the club part ways with most of its veterans and sign a number of younger players, many of them transfers from the outdoor game. Three days prior to the January 17 loss to San Diego, Empire suffered a 7-5 home defeat to Tacoma, having already fallen to the visiting Washingtonians by the same score line in late December. The Stars’ target forward, indoor legend Nick Perera, bagged five helpers and one goal across the pair of encounters.
“With every game you play against a team, you become more familiar with their tendencies and their go-to guys,” offered ‘keeper Gomez. “That’s why our lack of experience is a challenge. For a lot of us, our two games against Tacoma were the first two times we saw their players from up close. At this point, we should have a better idea what to expect. We’re aware of the threat posed by Nick up top and that he has very good runners working off him. It’s something we need to defend more effectively this time around.”
While Perera is tops league-wide in both assists (16) and points-per-game average (3.5 in 8 games), he also ranks second in the MASL in points (28) and is tied for fifth in goals (12). Jamael Cox’s four helpers are enough for second on the Stars together with Alex Caceres, and the 31-year-old Cox is also runner-up on Tacoma in points-per-game average (1.6 in 7 games) and points (11). Cox shares second place in goals with Alessandro Canale (7 each). Matt Braem has the most blocked opposition shots on the Stars roster (6), trailed by Eddie Na and Chase Hanson (4 each).
Other Tacoma standouts include former Strykers backstop Chris Toth as well as Panamanian legend and 2018 FIFA World Cup veteran Román Torres on defense.
Meanwhile, the 2-7-2 St. Louis Ambush, which sits sixth out of seven in the Eastern Conference, boasts club icon and goalkeeping ace Paulo Nascimento. The seventh-year Ambush man is second in the league in saves (129). His teammate Curtis Kirby leads St. Louis in blocked opposition shots (14), with Wil Nyamsi and Christian Briggs (10 each) sharing second place. William Eskay is his side’s undisputed attacking leader, as he tops the roster in goals (10), points (16), points-per-game average (1.8 in 9 games), and assists (6).
Forward Robert Kristo not only has the second-most tallies of all St. Louis players (8) but shares runner-up in points with Lucas Almeida (12 each). Midfielder Almeida trails Eskay in points-per-game average (1.3 in 9 games) and jointly sits second in assists with Billy Stimac and VcMor Eligwe. Recent signing Eligew has earned three helpers in as many matches since his arrival from the Dallas Sidekicks.
Empire earned a victory in its December 9 away meeting with the Ambush, jumping out to a dominant lead before coming under pressure in the final quarter and edging out an 8-7 final score.
Said Strykers ‘keeper Gomez, “Although we’ve focused heavily on Tacoma in training, we’ve also talked about St. Louis and how important it is to build on the win at their home. That was a close game, but we feel good because we had some really good moments and held on despite going through some lows as well. The top three teams in our conference are starting to pull away, so if we don’t start winning points, we’ll struggle to keep up. We have to look at every game as though it’s a must-win, whether we’re up against the top or the bottom of the table.”
Brandon Gomez and his Empire Strykers will hit the road for a January 25 clash with the Tacoma Stars, followed by a crucial home meeting with the St. Louis Ambush on January 28. Tickets for the matchup at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here.