Empire “Not Afraid” of Clash with Rival San Diego

by Gunnar Berndt

Defender Dielna views road game as chance to move on from Friday’s loss

Ontario, Calif. — After a disappointing home opener against the Baltimore Blast this past Friday, the Empire Strykers have a near-instant opportunity for redemption when they travel to take on long-time rival San Diego Sockers on Sunday. The match at Pechanga Arena comes on the heels of a meeting with Baltimore that featured the historic indoor debut of Mexican star Marco Fabián, whose goal and two assists couldn’t prevent Empire from falling 5-7 and dropping to 1-3 on their Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) campaign.

The Strykers and the Sockers are set to clash on Sunday, December 17, at 6:05 p.m. PT, with all the action being streamed live via the MASL’s channels on Twitch and Canela.

Another big-name Empire player, Claude Bilal Dielna, enjoyed a strong outing against the Blast, providing a steady presence in the back and scoring a memorable goal in the opening half.

“We played well, and I still think things are going in the right direction,” offered Dielna. “Sometimes small details make the difference, and that’s what happened on Friday night. We all don’t like to lose, so when it happens, you cannot be okay with that. At the end of the day, it’s not the end of the world, but we have to react quickly and work hard so we don’t develop a routine of losing. If we stay together and learn from the game, we will get better results in the next games.”

The 35-year-old Dielna joined the club during the offseason, having made a name for himself in the outdoor game. Among a number of other stops, he has laced up for AC Ajaccio of the French Ligue 1, for England’s Nottingham Forest, and for Major League Soccer (MLS) outfits New England Revolution and Portland Timbers. In the second quarter of the Strykers’ home opener against the Blast, Dielna rifled a long-range bullet into the upper ninety to level the score at 2-2.

“Most of the goals in my career were from far, so I know that I can score like that,” said Dielna. “When I have a chance, I normally give it a try. If it works out like it did against Baltimore, it’s a great feeling. Of course it’s nice for me, but I’m even more happy for the fans and because it helps the team.”

Another quality showing from Empire’s veteran defender would go a long way toward Dielna and company bouncing back Sunday at 3-0 San Diego. A traditional powerhouse of the sport, the Sockers lifted the 2021-22 Ron Newman Cup trophy, followed by a dominant 2022-23 regular season. Having won the West with 62 points and a 22-2 record, Head Coach Phil Salvagio’s men lost a dramatic conference semifinal series against eventual champion Chihuahua Savage, falling in overtime of the decisive game.

Despite wins in all three of their matches since the start of the current campaign, San Diego has not appeared invincible. In its opener away to the Dallas Sidekicks, the Sockers prevailed by a single goal, followed by a come-from-behind victory at Tacoma that saw the side trail as late as in the final quarter. While the San Diego defense has looked vulnerable, the offense has lived up to expectations courtesy of impressive outputs from the usual suspects.

The MASL top ten in points-per-game average features Sockers legend Kraig Chiles (4.0 in 1 game) in first as well as ex-Stryker Charlie Gonzalez (3.3 in 3 games) in third and Brandon Escoto (2.7 in 3 games) in tenth. A trio of San Diegans are also among the best league-wide in points. Gonzalez (10) sits in fourth, with Escoto and another former Empire man, Gabriel Costa (8 each), tied for seventh. Escoto is tied for fourth in the MASL in goals (6), and his teammates Gonzalez and Tavoy Morgan (5 each) are tied for seventh. Gonzalez, Costa, and one more ex-Stryker, Leonardo De Oliveira, are tied for second in assists (5 each).

Empire ‘keeper Brandon Gomez is tied for third in the league in saves (50). His backline is anchored by Stefan Mijatovic, who has blocked the second-most opposition shots in the MASL (13) and whose two goals have him tied for second on the Strykers with fellow defender Dielna as well as midfielders Gerardo Jurado and Alan Perez. Two-time FIFA World Cup veteran Fabián is tied for fourth league-wide in points-per-game average (3.0 in 1 game), with Jurado (1.8 in 4 games) sitting second on the team. While the Strykers’ top goal-scorer is Abdul Mansaray (3), Jurado has both the most points (7) and the most assists (5).

When asked whether or not it’s in his side’s favor that it clashes with the mighty Sockers only two days after the loss to Baltimore, Frenchman Dielna reflected on the experience of 16 years as a professional in the outdoor game.

“It depends which mindset you have,” said Dielna.” If you have a negative mindset and think you’re going to lose again, a short break can be bad for you. But if you stay positive and you win in San Diego, you can just forget about the loss on Friday but still work on your mistakes in training later. We always believe we can win, so I think it’s good for us to have a game right away. San Diego is a very good team. We will need to focus on the details and work very hard, but we are not afraid. We want to go there and get a result.”

The Empire Strykers take on host and long-time rival San Diego Sockers on Sunday, December 17. The side boasting Claude Bilal Dielna and Marco Fabián then returns home for a crucial meeting with the Tacoma Stars on Thursday, December 28. Tickets to the match at Ontario’s Toyota Arena start at $10 and may be purchased here.