Empire Faces Grueling Away Games at Chihuahua, Tacoma

by Gunnar Berndt

Forward Hanson: “Want to compete to prepare for next season”

Ontario, Calif. — The Empire Strykers have had little time to ponder Sunday’s home defeat to visiting rivals San Diego Sockers, as Head Coach Paul Wright’s men departed the very next day for Tuesday’s clash with host Chihuahua Savage of Mexico. This week’s grueling away schedule will see the Strykers return to California on Wednesday before boarding another plane on Friday to head to Washington state for the following day’s match against the Tacoma Stars.

The Strykers face the Savage today, March 19, and the Stars on Saturday, March 23. Both contests are scheduled to kick off at 7 p.m. PT. All the action will be streamed live in English on Twitch, with the match at Chihuahua also being carried in Spanish on Canela. Broadcasts are accessible via the two platforms’ respective apps and websites (www.twitch.tv and www.canela.tv). A complete channel guide for upcoming MASL games is here. Tickets to the Strykers’ March 31 season finale against the Stars at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here.

Playing in front of 5,013 supporters, Empire fell 5-11 to visiting San Diego in a wild affair over the weekend. While Strykers star Marco Fabián had a hat-trick and his teammate Harold Hanson celebrated a breakout match, recording three points of his own, the duo was bested on the day by four-point shifts from the Sockers’ Kraig Chiles and ex-Empire man Charlie Gonzalez. After Fabián, Hanson, and company had put up a considerable fight in the opening 30 minutes, the wheels came off following intermission, as the Sockers won the final 30 minutes 6-2. A quartet of San Diego attackers finished with three points each.

“I think the reason games slip away from us is mental,” offered Empire forward Hason. “Although we have a very talented squad, we don’t have a lot of experience. In the indoor world, experience means a lot, and it showed on Sunday. I was fairly happy with our first half. Although it wasn’t perfect, we kept it close against a very good opponent. Every moment counts in a game like that, and we weren’t mentally tuned in after the break. We all still need to learn and develop more. In due time, we’re going to be a great team.”

Standing on the turf after the final whistle, former El Tri standout Fabián shared a similar view of his side’s potential as well as of the match against San Diego.

“My analysis is, first half, it’s not bad. We fight again against a good team. Again, I just want to say, I know individually I tried my best, but this is a sport with a team, and I’m still proud about my teammates. They fight a lot, and even if we not get a win, we still fight. And that is sport. It’s a big process. I know it’s coming, the best times. And like I always say, you just keep [working], and we have three games left. We have to fight to go to the finish, and we get a victory.”

With Hanson and Fabián jointly powering the Strykers attack, first-year indoor player Hanson, an alum of the Portland Timbers organization, scored one of the best tallies of the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) season. Having been denied one on one by ‘keeper Pavel Pardo in the third quarter, Hanson watched the ball pop into the air with his back to the goal on the right and cut his team’s deficit to 4-5 by opting for a spectacular bicycle kick and burying the effort underneath the bar from a tight angle.

“I thought it was a great opportunity,” recalled Hanson, “so I decided to go for it and see what happens. Watching it back the next morning, I thought to myself that I can’t wait to score more goals like that. I’ve watched it a bunch of times now. To do that in front of a big crowd was a very special moment for me.”

With two of Empire’s most productive attackers, Justin Stinson and Stefan Mijatovic, currently on loan at Tacoma, Empire has seen seen expanded contributions from Hanson and several other up-and-comers. While 24-year-old MASL rookie Hanson is notably tied for third on the roster in both assists (9) and points-per-game average (0.8), the Strykers offense is led by Fabián. The two-time FIFA World Cup veteran ranks second league-wide in goals (29) and tied for second in power play goals (5) as well as fifth in points (41) and tied for fifth in points-per-game average (2.3 in 18 games).

While Fabián also tops the Strykers in assists (12), Alan Perez is runner-up on the team in points (17) and points-per-game average (0.9 in 20 games), in addition to jointly ranking second in goals with Gerardo Jurado (8 each). Impressively, defender Momo Gueye not only has the second-most helpers of all Empire players (10) but is also tied for third in points (16) and points-per-game average (0.8 in 20 games). Club icon Israel Sesay has the most blocked opposition shots (20), with Gueye (17) in the runner-up position.

Having dropped nine straight, the 3-17-1 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Strykers are eliminated from playoff contention. Following last fall’s radical roster overhaul, the Southern Californians sit just outside the Western Conference postseason picture in fifth, trailing the fourth-place Texas Outlaws by 21 points and having played one fewer game. Positive results this week would go a long way toward keeping bottom-dwelling Dallas at bay, with the Sidekicks a mere two points behind at three games left.

“We are all the new players,” said Empire’s Fabián in sharing his thoughts immediately after the loss to the Sockers. “This is my first time when I play indoor soccer. Some players, the same. So this is a process. I think the next season, we’re going to be a champion for sure. We fight for be a champion. We fight for be in the first places. […] We have faith in this process. We trust the process. And I think the next season starts right now.”

In 13-7-1 Chihuahua, the Strykers face an opponent looking to bounce back from consecutive losses in its back-to-back nailbiters against hosts Tacoma Stars over the weekend, having fallen 6-7 in regulation time on Friday and then in overtime following a 4-4 tie on Saturday. With the playoffs-bound Savage sitting second in the West, it has no chance of catching first-place San Diego but now has third-place Tacoma breathing down its neck, courtesy of the pair of dramatic away defeats to the Stars.

In order to hand Chihuahua its third straight loss, Empire’s attack will have to overcome the excellent opposition defense led by netminder Diego Reynoso, who sits second in the MASL in goals-against-average (3.64). Backline anchor Roberto Escalante is tied for ninth in the league in blocked opposition shots (31) and is trailed on the Savage by Luis Medrano (19).

The Chihuahua offense is powered by Hugo Puentes, who is first on the roster in goals (17), assists (10), points (27), and points-per-game average (1.3 in 21 games). While Miguel Angel Diaz is runner-up in goals (15), points (21), and points-per-game average (1.0 in 21 games), Carlos Hernandez has the second-most assists on the team (8). Savage forward Erick Tovar is tied for tenth in the MASL in power play goals (3).

Meanwhile, the Strykers’ other adversary this week, the 13-6-2 Stars, are riding a six-game win streak and have received significant contributions from Empire loanees Justin Stinson and Stefan Mijatovic. Stinson, especially, has turned heads with his dazzling attacking play, bagging 11 points on 7 goals and 4 assists in 4 games for an impressive 2.8 points-per-game average. When combing his totals from his time with Empire and Tacoma this season, the midfielder factors heavily into the Stars’ offensive leaderboard. However, as per Stinson and Mijatovic’s loan agreements, neither is eligible to play against their parent club.

Jamael Cox is tied for ninth league-wide in points-per-game average (2.0 in 19 games), tied for tenth in power play goals (3), and tied for eighth in both goals (24) and points (38). Meanwhile, Stinson sits tied for second in the MASL in power play goals (5) as well as second on Tacoma in goals (21) and tied for second in both assists (15) and points (36). Mijatovic and Nick Perera share runner-up with the St. Louis native in assists and points, respectively. Currently nursing a knee injury, indoor legend Perera continues to lead the league in points-per-game average (3.0 in 12 games).

Ex-Empire netminder Chris Toth ranks fourth in the league in saves (234), with Mijatovic, who has played as a defender and as a forward this season, topping the Stars in blocked opposition shots (24) and Logan Jones (16) following behind in second.

In looking ahead to the upcoming pair of away contests, Strykers forward Harold Hanson stressed that his side is far from throwing in the towel.

“Even though we can’t make the playoffs, we’re going into these games as if we still have a chance,” he said. “We want to compete because this isn’t the end for us. We’re going to be better next season, so it’s crucial that we start now and prepare for that. We also want to end on a good note by performing well and getting some good results for our fans.”

Harold Hanson, Marco Fabián, and the Empire Strykers face host Cihuahua Savage on March 19 before traveling to take on the Tacoma Stars on March 23. The Strykers return to Toyota Arena in Ontario on March 31 for another clash with the Stars and their final home game of 2023-24. Tickets are available here.