Fabián Wins Golden Boot in Empire’s Overtime Loss to Stars

by Gunnar Berndt

‘Keeper Birrueta frustrates Strykers as Tacoma prevails 6-5

WATCH: Momo Gueye postgame comments

Ontario, Calif. — The Empire Strykers played one of the best games of their 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) season on Sunday evening, outshooting the visiting Tacoma Stars 42-33, only to fall 5-6 in overtime. The Stars earned their ninth straight victory in large part due to the heroics of backup goalkeeper Luis Birrueta, who subbed in for ex-Empire standout Chris Toth at halftime and boasted an impressive .917 save percentage on 11 total saves. With the defeat, the Strykers’ young squad ends the season at 3-19-2 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses).

Empire star Marco Fabián bagged yet another hat-trick on the day, finishing his first indoor campaign on 35 netters and tied with Kansas City forward Zach Reget for the MASL Golden Boot. Fabián’s teammate Momo Gueye had a strong showing on defense, leading a gritty display by his side and contributing two attacking points in the process.

In a fiercely-contested first quarter, the hosts had the best chance of the opening stages, Fabián releasing a wicked low drive from rage and ‘keeper Toth diving to his right to tip the ball just wide of the frame. It was a sign of things to come, as Fabián put the Strykers on top deeper into the period. The Mexican collected the ball from Mo Alewine and streaked down the center on a breakaway, his calm finish inside the right post leaving Toth without a chance.

The two-time FIFA World Cup veteran made it a brace with a brilliant tally in the second quarter. Positioned on the right and receiving the ball from Quenton Swift with his back to the goal, Fabián faked out his marker with some deceptive body movement, cutting inside and firing a low shot inside the near post with his weaker left foot. Gerardo Jurado then missed a golden chance for his team’s third on a defensive miscue by the Stars, staring at a wide-open net but missing wide right.

Empire kept knocking on the door, Fabián dribbling around netminder Toth on the right and sending an excellent effort on frame from a tight angle that was scraped off the line by Matt Braem. The visitors then had a dangerous warning shot at the other end, as Alessandro Canale rattled the far post with a hard drive from the right. Instead of a Stars tally, the Strykers made it 3-0 moments later. Gueye picked out Jurado on a power play, the midfielder tapping home from the doorstep.

Tacoma subsequently pulled one back, Cory Keitz rifling a bullet off the underside of the bar on a stunning half-volley from the yellow line. Eddie Na recorded the assist on the tally. The Stars quickly scored two more times to level things at 3-3. First, Jamael Cox tallied from another Na helper. Then, Braem found the upper far-side corner on a gorgeous right-footed curler from the left, Keitz being credited with the assist even though the ball seemed to have been tow-poked to him by opposition defender Alewine. The home side would reclaim the lead before the halftime whistle, defender Gueye finding the net on a Jurado restart.

Tacoma leveled things back up following intermission, as Chase Hanson earned the helper on a goal by Michael Ramos. Empire then came within a hair of tallying at the other end, Fabián being denied in agonizing fashion when he found himself one on one with Stars backup netminder Birrueta and dribbled around the 25-year-old, only to see his subsequent shot blocked on the goal-line by midfielder Nani Mendoza. Empire attacking engine Fabián again came close to completing his hat-trick when he blasted a long-range rocket off the crossbar.

After Tyler John put Tacoma ahead 5-4 on a play that saw Canale credited with the assist, the home side nearly tied the match back up when Fabián displayed some brilliant footwork before sending a perfect pass into the run of Harold Hanson. Ontario native Hanson’s first-time finish was blocked by Birrueta, who had rushed off his line to cut down the angle.

The game’s tense fourth period saw Fabián continue to chase the MASL Golden Boot, forcing a diving parry from Birrueta, who jumped right back to his feet and tipped over Alan Perez’s headed attempt on the rebound for an excellent double-save. Former El Tri ace Fabián finally broke through with just over two minutes left, sending the home crowd into a frenzy by slotting Perez’s layoff inside the right post from close range to make it 5-5.

The Strykers started the ten-minute overtime period on the front foot and very nearly took home the win on two separate occasions. ‘Keeper Birrueta came up huge both times, throwing himself into attempted finishes by Riley Urie and Quenton Swift for consecutive point-blank stops. After Perez smashed a side-volley off the bar, Empire would be punished for the trio of missed chances at the other end, as Mendoza bagged the winner on a helper by Willie Spurr.