‘Keepers Shine as Strykers Fall 7-2 Away to Comets

by Gunnar Berndt

Empire’s Orozco, KC’s Neto put in standout shifts as hosts snap losing streak

Independence, Mo. — The Empire Strykers made it consecutive defeats in their back-to-back road games on Saturday evening, falling 7-2 to the Kansas City Comets and seeing their Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) playoff hopes take a major hit in the process. The Comets snapped their eight-game losing streak courtesy of a comprehensive team performance and the outstanding play of ‘keeper Nicolau Neto, who finished the encounter with 15 saves and an impressive .882 save percentage. Empire backstop Brian Orozco enjoyed an excellent showing of his own, boasting 14 saves and a .778 save percentage.

With 15 of their 24 regular season games in the books, the 3-12-0 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Strykers, who sit just below the all-important line in the Western Conference, now face the daunting task of having to make up 13 points on the Tacoma Stars and at least 13 points on the Chihuahua Savage. While Tacoma won its Saturday contest at St. Louis 12-6, Chihuahua led the visiting Texas Outlaws at the time of the completion of this match report. Both the Stars and the Savage were set to end the night with two games in hand on Empire.

Against Kansas City, the Strykers jumped on top early, Justin Stinson setting up Missouri native and former Comet Adam James, followed by Henry Ramirez’s equalizer on a helper by ex-Empire ace Robert Palmer. The visitors from California nearly reclaimed the lead in the final moments of a power play, but Marco Fabián’s low right-footed drive was kept out by Neto, who seemed to see the ball late and did well to stick out his left foot for a strong reaction save. As though inspired by the quality piece of goalkeeping, Strykers netminder Orozco subsequently produced a pair of noteworthy moments of his own.

First, Kansas City’s Chad Vandergriffe played the ball off the boards and into his own path on a breakaway, sprinting down the field for a one on one with Orozco, only to see the Empire rookie stand his ground for a point-blank block. Then, the 22-year-old Orozco rushed off his line to deny a wide-open Lucas Sousa.

The home side made it 2-1 in the opening stages of the second quarter, Lalo Alonso Alejo’s pressure resulting in a giveaway by Fabián and a simple finish by Ramone Palmer. The Comets appeared to draw additional energy from the tally, and they scored another when Sousa fired a rocket into the net from well behind the yellow line, Michael Lenis bagging the assist. Sousa then got his second to make it 4-1 deep into the period, converting a helper from Ignacio Flores. Alonso Alejo and Jacob Garza could have grabbed their side’s fifth on separate plays, each unloading from outside the area and rattling the right post.

Empire had a golden opportunity to pull one back well into the third quarter. Faced with an unmarked Momo Gueye on a power play, Comets ‘keeper Neto cut down the angle and just managed to keep the attempted finish from sneaking underneath his left leg.

Kansas City lamented a near miss of its own in the game’s closing period. Strykers midfielder Randy Martinez tripped while running with the ball toward his own net, inadvertently putting Ramone Palmer in all by himself. Caught out of position, backstop Orozco scrambled to get back and went fully extended to his right for an excellent diving parry.

The visitors refused to give up and made things interesting at the other end, using ‘’keeper Orozco as a sixth attacker on a power play and pouncing on the numerical advantage to cut their deficit back to two. Stefan Mijatovic picked out Fabián with a gorgeous chip from the right, and the Mexican star tallied in his twelfth straight match as his first-time finish from the doorstep made it 4-2. However, just as it appeared the momentum might swing Empire’s way, an unlucky Alan Perez deflected the ball into his own net on a Robert Palmer shot that was going well wide of the frame.

As the Strykers subsequently opted to play without a nominal netminder, the home side sealed the deal by finding the open goal twice in quick succession. After Ramone Palmer took the ball off the foot of sixth attacker Gerardo Jurado to complete his brace, Flores tallied to make it 7-2 on a Lenis helper.

The Empire Strykers return to Ontario’s Toyota Arena on February 18 for a meeting with the San Diego Sockers. Tickets to the rivalry clash are available here.