Empire Faces “Must-Win” Meetings with Sidekicks, Outlaws
Defender Mijatovic remains optimistic ahead of back-to-back games
Ontario, Calif. — Having underperformed in the early phase of their 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) campaign, the Empire Strykers find themselves desperate for back-to-back victories in their upcoming pair of matches against host Dallas Sidekicks and the visiting Texas Outlaws. In their quest to make the playoffs after consecutive absences, the Strykers have leaned heavily on offseason arrival Stefan Mijatovic, who provided his perspective on the task ahead and the state of the team.
Mijatovic and company take on Dallas this coming Saturday at 5 p.m. PT before returning home for their meeting with Texas on Tuesday at 7:05 p.m. PT. Tickets for the crucial clash with the Outlaws are available here. Both matches will be streamed live on Twitch. A full channel lineup for MASL broadcasts may be found here.
Empire has lost five out of six contests thus far. Of those defeats, three came on the road and against favored opposition. However, the other two came at home against teams Head Coach Paul Wright’s men would have expected to beat.
Most recently, the Strykers fell 7-5 to the Tacoma Stars in front of their own fans, opposition attacker Alessandro Canale bagging a hat-trick while his teammate and indoor legend Nick Perera contributed three assists on the night. Empire’s Marco Fabián impressed yet again as he added a goal and two more assists to bring his points total since arriving in early December to seven. Notably, Mijatovic, who had thus far anchored the backline for the Strykers, spearheaded his young side’s offense and turned heads with a pair of quality tallies.
“I really think we’re at least as good as most of the teams we’ve played,” remarked the Illinois native. “We should at least have won both our home games, which would give us an even record right now. We lost by our own mistakes. When we look at the game against Tacoma, we can’t even call it rookie mistakes anymore, since some were made by our veterans. That said, I thought our tactics and formation worked out well and that we had a lot better movement. That’s definitely a good sign.”
Among several adjustments made by Head Coach Wright prior to the defeat to the Stars was the inclusion of newly signed Ontario native Harold Hanson as a forward. Hanson and Mijatovic would take turns holding up to the ball and allowing other Empire players to join the attack.
“It might not show in the results yet, but we’re getting a lot better,” said the 27-year-old Mijatovic. “The coach is trying to figure things out and moving some pieces around. I know defense wins championships, and I don’t mind doing the dirty work, like blocking shots and fighting it out with forwards, but I do love playing target (striker). If we’re not scoring enough and I’m needed up top, I’ll be happy to play there. Wherever I can make the team better, that’s where I’ll go. Personally, I thought we were finding some chemistry and things looked better with me and Harold up top. I think it could really work.”
While Mijatoic is tied for third in the MASL in blocked opposition shots (16), the next closest Empire player is captain Israel Sesay (9). Marco Fabián leads his side in points-per-game average (2.3 in 3 games), followed by Gerardo Jurado (1.3 in 6 games). Jurado is tops on Empire in points (8) and assists (6), fellow midfielder Fabián holding second place in both categories (7 and 4, respectively). Forward Abdul Mansary and Mijatovic, who has mostly played as a defender, share the team lead in goals (4 each).
Sitting in fifth place in the Western Conference, one spot below the playoff line, Empire is only trailed by Saturday’s opponent, Dallas, which holds the same record as the Strykers (wins-losses-overtime: 1-5-0) and will be itching to climb out of the basement with the second victory of its campaign. Most recently, Ed Puskarich’s men fell by wide margins away to Texas and at home to the Milwaukee Wave.
At 42 years old, Sidekicks forward Blas Pérez, a former star of Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Mexican Primera División (now Liga MX), is proving he’s still got it, as he is second in the MASL in power play goals (3) and tied for sixth in total goals (8). The Panama legend has also been dominating his side’s roster in points-per-game average (2.3 in 4 games), followed by Jamie Lovegrove and Gustavo Piedra (1.0 in 6 and 4 games, respectively).
Lovegrove also sits second on Dallas in points (6) and goals (4) as well as tied for second in assists with Piedra, VcMor Eligwe, and Albert Rodriguez (2 each). Ex-Empire attacker Nestor Hernandez not only has the most helpers (3) of all Sidekicks players but also tops the roster in blocked opposition shots (9), ahead of Rio Ramirez (6).
“We’re definitely not where we wanted to be at this point,” conceded Empire’s Mijatovic. “The game against Tacoma was a must-win since there’s a good chance only one of us will make the playoffs. Given we let ourselves down, it’s now even more important that we beat Dallas. If we don’t, our season could soon be over. There’s nothing we’re going to leave there with but three points.”
The Strykers may well face an even sterner test in Tuesday’s home game against the Outlaws, who sit in second place in the Western Conference with a record of 4-2-1 (wins-losses-overtime) and most recently crushed Dallas before more narrowly defeating Milwaukee for back-to-back home wins.
Former Empire standout Uzi Tayou has impressed anchoring the defense for his new side, as he leads the league in blocked opposition shots (20), with Erik Macias and Emmanuel Aguirre (8 each) sitting tied for second on Texas. Goalkeeper Jesus Rivera has the fourth-most saves in the MASL (81).
While forward Luiz Morales is tops league-wide in points-per-game average (3.0 in 7 games), points (21), and goals (16), teammate Sebastian Mendez’ points-per-game average (2.4 in 7 games) has him tied for seventh. Mendez also sits first in the MASL in power play goals (5), third in points (17), and tied for third in both goals (9) and assists (8). Forward Vinicius Dantas is tied for second in the league in game-winning goals (2). Mendez has the second-most goals (9) of all Outlaws players, and Morales ranks second on the roster in assists (5).
“It’s fair to say that’s also a must-win for us,” said the Strykers’ Mijatovic, who may well find himself back on defense against one of indoor soccer’s most lethal attacks. “We’ve been looking at our schedule and we know what we have to do if we want to make the playoffs. Basically, we need to win three out of the next four games, and we want to make our home a place where nobody wants to come and play. Although we haven’t started out right this season, we’re getting a lot of fans supporting us and having our backs. We finally want to give back to them by getting a win at our arena.”
Stefan Mijatovic and his Empire Strykers face a pair of crucial matches in the coming days. After hitting the road for Saturday’s meeting with the Dallas Sidekicks, Head Coach Paul Wright’s men return home to take on the Texas Outlaws on Tuesday, January 9. Tickets for the crucial clash in Ontario are available here.