Empire “Looking Forward” to Games at Baltimore, KC

by Gunnar Berndt

Head Coach Wright: “Becoming an elite team is within reach”

Ontario, Calif. — Despite Sunday’s 8-4 loss to the visiting Monterrey Flash, there has been an air of confidence about the Empire Strykers this week. With the Strykers having caused plenty of problems for the winningest team in the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL), Head Coach Paul Wright was optimistic about the state of his team as it faces a pair of demanding away games on back-to-back nights. Following their strong showing against the 15-0-0 (wins-losses-shootout/overtime losses) Flash in front of 3,700 at Ontario’s Toyota Arena, Wright’s men look to stay in the playoff hunt by improving on their current record of 3-10-0.

Empire will hit the road for Friday’s 4:35 p.m. PT meeting with the Baltimore Blast and Saturday’s 4:05 p.m. PT meeting with the 7-6-2 Kansas City Comets. All the action will be streamed live on Twitch and may be accessed via the platform’s app and website. A full channel lineup for MASL broadcasts may be found here.

Playing in front of a boisterous home crowd on Sunday, the Strykers found themselves down 1-5 in the second quarter. After a spirited rally which saw them score before halftime, win the third period 1-0, and pull another one back in the fourth, the Southern Californians missed a golden chance to cut their deficit to 5-6 with just over three minutes left. Justin Stinson, who bagged three points in the match, saw his penalty shot saved by Monterrey backup Christian Hernandez. As Stinson and company kept pushing with a sixth attacker, the Flash found the empty net twice to round out the final score.

“I think both,” responded Empire’s Mexican star, Marco Fabián, when asked after the game whether he felt more disappointed or more proud of his side’s play. “Of course, disappointed because we know we can compete with the best team of the league. I think every single game we feel better, and today it’s a little frustrating because we know we can win this game. At the same time, I’m proud of these guys. […] The third quarter was fantastic, so if we could play like this, I think we can get more wins.”

Agreed Paul Wright, “Immediately after, it was disappointing that we couldn’t finish the comeback. We knew by halftime that we were capable of winning the game, and that feeling grew when we shut them out in the third quarter and kept pushing in the fourth. By now, we’ve reminded ourselves that Monterrey is the team no one’s beaten, so we take it as a positive that we had a real chance to force overtime. We felt the fans behind us, and I think we surprised a lot of people.”

A first-year head coach, Wright, who rose to legendary status as a San Diego Sockers forward, took on the Empire job during the offseason. The 54-year-old was tasked with leading a near-total overhaul of the roster, which saw the club part ways with established veterans while adding numerous younger players.

“Having challenged the team with the best record in the MASL, the feeling is that we should keep doing what we’ve been doing,” said England-born American Wright. “We have a lot more upside, which means becoming an elite team is within reach. We still give up preventable goals, so fixing that could get us there. I’m not too focused on the standings. The points will come as we keep developing.”

After consecutive postseason absences, the Strykers’ 2023-24 playoff hopes hang in the balance, as the Western Conference outfit sits just below the line in fifth but trails the fourth-place Tacoma Stars by eight points and the third-place Chihuahua Savage by ten. Tacoma and Chihuahua each have two games in hand.

Stefan Mijatovic tops Empire in blocked opposition shots (21), trailed by Israel Sesay (15). Fabián is his team’s undisputed attacking leader, sitting second in the MASL in points-per-game average (2.5 in 10 games) and tied for fifth in power play goals (3). The midfielder also leads the Strykers in goals (15), assists (10), and points (25). Mijatovic ranks second on the roster in assists (8), and Stinson has the second-highest points-per-game average (1.8 in 12 games), second-most goals (14), and second-most points (21).

In Friday’s contest in Towson, Md., the Strykers face an adversary in the Blast which is a traditional MASL powerhouse but has faced a tougher go-around this season following some significant roster turnover. After never missing the knockout rounds since its inaugural campaign in 2014-15, last year’s runner-up ranks just outside the Eastern Conference playoff picture in fifth. While Head Coach David Bascome’s men trail fourth-place Kansas City by eight points, they have three games in hand on Saturday’s Empire opponent.

The Blast, which most recently defeated the Comets 7-5 at home before falling 5-8 at Utica, is led on offense by Juan Pereira and Tony Donatelli. Forward Pereira tops all Baltimore players in assists (9), points (18), and points-per-game average (1.6 in 11 games), and 39-year-old veteran Donatelli follows behind in each category (8, 17, and 1.4 in 10 games, respectively). The team lead in goals is shared by Pereira and Donatelli (9 each), midfielder Donatelli also boasting the second-most blocked opposition shots (11). Victor Parreiras is tied for tenth league-wide in power play goals (2).

“We haven’t played at Baltimore this season, but some of our guys have in the past,” said Empire’s Paul Wright. “It’s a small field, similar to the one we practice on, so knowing that gives us a bit of comfort. We expect an up-and-down game. As soon as we get across the halfway line, we’ll try to execute and shoot.”

With goalkeeper William Vanzela gone from the Baltimore roster and the ageless Nelson Santana having moved on to Utica City FC, the Blast defense is anchored by club legend Adriano Dos Santos, back from an injury that sidelined him for nearly the entire 2022-23 campaign. Dos Santos leads the roster in blocked opposition shots (15). Meanwhile, this season’s Baltimore attack is without Jonatas Melo and Lucas Roque, the latter having joined the Strykers during the offseason, only to miss all but one game thus far for personal reasons. Melo and Roque formed one of the sport’s most lethal duos for several years.

“I’m glad we’ve seen the Blast from up close already,” offered Paul Wright in reflecting on the Strykers’ 5-7 loss to Baltimore in their home opener on December 15, 2023. “When they came here, the guys felt it was a winnable game, so they don’t have any fear going there now. The same applies to Kansas City, which we will focus on after Friday. Since injuries and suspensions could happen in the first game, we won’t get ahead of ourselves in planning for Saturday. We feel confident because we’ve had some of our best performances on the road. The guys are looking forward to continuing that.”

The Comets defense boasts backstop Nicolau Neto, who has the fourth-most saves in the MASL (143) and club icon Robert Palmer. Ex-Empire standout Palmer ranks second in the MASL in blocked opposition shots (45), with John Sosa (21) trailing him on the Kansas City roster. The Comets backline features another former member of the Strykers organization in DeBray Hollimon.

Head Coach Stefan Stokic’s squad is led offensively by the experienced Zach Reget, who is second in the league in goals (23), tied for third in points (31), tied for ninth in points-per-game average (2.1 in 15 games), tied for second in game-winning goals (3), and tied for tenth in power play goals (2). Reget’s teammates John Sosa (16) and Ignacio Flores (5) sit second in the MASL in assists and power play goals, respectively. While Sosa is runner-up on Kansas City in points (24) and points-per-game average (1.6 in 15 games), Flores ranks second in goals (10) and assists (10).

The Comets look to halt their current downward sprial, having dropped seven straight. In their two most recent matches, they fell 5-7 to Baltimore and 6-7 in overtime to the St. Louis Ambush, both on the road.

“It’s our first time this season playing two away games in two days,” said Empire’s Wright. “The way we handle that is an indicator of how we’re maturing. Good teams go on the road and win back-to-back games. We just showed that we can play well in front of a big crowd at home, so now here’s a different type of challenge. I’m looking to motivate the guys to get up for each of our remaining games. They’re excited about the future, whether we get above the playoff line this season or next season.”

The Empire Strykers take on home sides Baltimore Blast and Kansas City Comets this coming Friday and Saturday, respectively. Tickets to the Strykers’ February 18 rivalry clash with the visiting San Diego Sockers are available here.