Empire Hosts Defending Champs Tuesday

by Gunnar Berndt

Captain Sesay heads into Chihuahua clash “with a lot of confidence”

Ontario, Calif. — For the Empire Strykers, this week is all about next year’s Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) championship. With the Western Conference outfit all but eliminated from the playoff hunt this time around, the focus inside camp has fully shifted to molding a roster ripe with potential into one capable of making a renewed push several months from now. Coming off a dramatic offseason overhaul, the Strykers’ young squad has struggled to compete with veteran-heavy adversaries through its first 18 games but has shown significant progress over the course of the past few weeks.

In their extended leadup to 2024-25, Empire hosts defending champion Chihuahua Savage this coming Tuesday, March 5, at 7:05 p.m. PT, with tickets available here. The meeting will be streamed live in English on Twitch and in Spanish on Canela. Broadcasts may be accessed via the two platforms’ respective apps and websites. A complete channel guide for upcoming MASL games is here.

The Strykers recently suffered back-to-back defeats, having fallen at home to the Kansas City Comets last Wednesday and away to the San Diego Sockers on Friday.

Against visiting Kansas City, the Southern Californians put in their best defensive performance of the campaign so far, only to lose in heartbreaking fashion, 3-4. The game’s final minute and change featured a dramatic equalizer by the Strykers as well as the Comets’ winner moments later. Both Empire ’keeper Brian Orozco and opposition backstop Nicolau Neto enjoyed standout shifts in the contest.

In their 4-8 defeat at San Diego, Orozco and company struggled to contain the home side’s attacking trio of Felipe Gonzalez, Brandon Escoto, and Tavoy Morgan, with the Sockers pulling away courtesy of a 4-1 run of scoring following intermission. While Strykers defender Momo Gueye earned two assists, Marco Fabián bagged a brace, thereby finding the net in his 15th straight match since arriving in the MASL three months ago.

Empire captain Israel Sesay, “We came out strong in the first half. It was close, and both teams had some chances. Unfortunately, we then went back to our old ways of struggling in the third quarter. That’s where we gave the game away. In the fourth quarter, we fought and didn’t give away any goals, but we were up against a very organized, experienced team and couldn’t create enough offense for a comeback.”

Notably, while the Sockers were only shown one blue card in total, the Strykers were forced to defend short-handed on three occasions. Two of those instances occurred prior to halftime, with the visitors even incurring consecutive penalties in the second period and playing down two men for 35 seconds. San Diego failed to score during the sequence and managed just one tally during numerical advantages all night.

Said Empire’s Sesay, “We were very happy with our penalty kill, especially because we were on the road and playing at such a tough building. But giving up so many blue cards was part of the problem. I am one of the guys who have to defend power plays, and I can tell you it takes a toll on your body when you’re coming off a game two days before. Blue cards are avoidable, and we also had a power play that we didn’t capitalize on. I think we would have had a chance if we had done better at those things.”

With Stefan Mijatovic having departed to Tacoma on a short-term loan, defender and club icon Sesay leads the Strykers in blocked opposition shots (18), ahead of Gueye and Quenton Swift (13 each). Meanwhile, Fabián remains his side’s undisputed attacking leader. The midfielder sits tied for fourth league-wide in goals (23), tied for second in power play goals (5), and tied for fifth in both points (35) and points-per-game average (2.3 in 15 games). While Fabián also tops the Empire roster in assists (12), Justin Stinson is second in goals (14), points (25), points-per-game average (1.6 in 16 games), and assists (11).

In 11-5-0 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Chihuahua, the 3-14-1 Strykers face an opponent looking for its eighth straight victory. The Savage, which has already booked its ticket to the playoffs, most recently downed mighty San Diego 5-4 on the road, following a 9-3 rout of the visiting Dallas Sidekicks. While only five teams in the MASL have scored fewer goals than fourth-year side Chihuahua, Head Coach Genoni Martinez’s men have given up by far the fewest netters in the MASL at 65, with the Monterrey Flash ranking second at 82.

The Savage sits second in the West, trailing the Sockers by 11 points but standing a real chance of taking over first place thanks to three games in hand. Although only two points ahead of third-place Texas, the Mexicans are unlikely to face a challenge from the Outlaws, who have already played four more games. Chihuahua boasts a five-point cushion on fourth-place Tacoma with one game in hand on the Stars. The Savage defeated Empire 8-1 in both club’s season opener back on November 24.

“They’ve been very good since coming into the league,” said Empire’s Sesay of Tuesday’s adversary. “The first time we played them, it was at their home, which is one of the toughest buildings in the MASL. Still, it was very close in the first half, and things didn’t fall apart until the second half. The way we’re progressing, I have a lot of confidence, especially since it’s in front of our fans and we have nothing to lose. In the past, when we’ve played them at our arena, we’ve tended to be the better team. If we give it our all and play the way we have been at home, I believe we can get a good result.”

While the Strykers have suffered six consecutive losses, half of them came by margins of two goals or less. The squad which features a number of first-year indoor players avoided mathematical elimination from playoff contention over the weekend due to Harrisburg on Sunday forcing overtime against heavily favored host Tacoma. Empire still requires nothing short of a miracle to reach the knockout rounds, despite sitting just outside the Western Conference postseason picture in fifth.

The Strykers trail fourth-place Tacoma by 18 points, with the Stars having played one fewer game. Holding two games in hand on Texas, Empire faces a similarly difficult task in trying to catch the Outlaws, who boast a 21-point advantage. A win on Tuesday would at least keep bottom-dwelling Dallas at bay, as the Sidekicks are currently five points behind the Strykers with one game in hand.

In order to come away with victory against the Savage, Empire’s attack will have to overcome the excellent opposition defense led by netminder Diego Reynoso, who ranks first in the league in goals-against-average (2.94) and second in save percentage (.772). Backline anchor Roberto Escalante is tied for eighth in the MASL in blocked opposition shots (31), trailed on the Chihuahua roster by Luis Medrano (19). While Miguel Angel Diaz leads his side in goals (14), followed by Hugo Puentes (11), forward Puentes is first in assists (8), points (19), and points-per-game average (1.2 in 16 games).

Diaz is runner-up on the Savage in points (17) and points-per-game average (1.1 in 16), with Bryan Macias having the second-most helpers (6).

In concluding his preview of the upcoming clash, Empire skipper Sesay opted to focus on the bigger picture.

“We’ve put in some good performances in the last few games and have come a long a way from the start of the campaign,” he said. “The team is gelling and getting better, and the guys are still learning. For a lot of them, this is their first time playing indoor, which we knew would be tough. The players who do well are the ones who have been in this league for a while. When you’re young, they will often take advantage of you. We’ve generated some good experience and had some really close games. That will pay off in the future. We’re not quite where we want to be yet, but going into next season, I think we’ll be very good.”

The Empire Strykers face defending MASL champion Chihuahua Savage on Tuesday, March 5. Tickets are available here.