Revamped Empire Falls 8-1 to Ruthless Chihuahua
Defending champs put on clinic in chemistry as Puentes shines
Ontario, Calif. — The Empire Strykers kicked off their 2023-24 MASL campaign with an 8-1 away defeat to the Chihuahua Savage of Mexico on Friday evening. The home side’s dominant win was powered by its trademark chemistry and a standout performance from star striker Hugo Puentes, who bagged two goals and an assist. With Chihuahua having retained the core of its championship-winning roster from last season, Empire’s young, revamped squad struggled to put up a real challenge in its first competitive game since the recent flurry of offseason moves.
The Strykers claimed the early lead on a gorgeous tally from Howard Miller Jr. As midfielder Quenton Swift laid the ball off with his back to the goal, Miller Jr. hit a powerful right-footed volley from well outside the box that stayed low and snuck inside the left upright. The visitors could have doubled their advantage shortly thereafter, but goalkeeper Ivan Munoz came up with a fingertip save to deny Abdul Mansaray, who had done well to turn and send a curling effort toward the right post.
Jaime Alejandro Romero nearly leveled things up at the other end, releasing a long-range rocket that rattled the left side of the frame. It would initiate a period of sustained pressure from the Mexicans, who again came close when Carlos Hernandez picked out an open Puentes and netminder Brandon Gomez was forced to quickly pull up both hands for a point-blank reflex save.
After the Strykers nearly punished Chihuahua for the missed chances, Swift forcing an opposition mistake and Gerardo Jurado sending a seemingly simple tap-in over the bar, the Savage returned to its attacking ways and nearly found the leveler on a pair of Adriano Nunes attempts in quick succession. Each time, Empire’s Gomez did well do get a his body in the way and avert the danger.
Following an uneventful start to the game’s second period, the Savage finally made it 1-1 on a shot that resembled Miller Jr.’s opener, except that Enrique Canez’ powerful volley from the top of the box shook the net just underneath the crossbar. The midfielder displayed perfect technique as he opted for a first-time hit on Israel Sesay’s looping clearance. Energized by the goal, the hosts quickly added another to claim the lead. Javier Gallegos took full advantage of a scramble inside the box that saw the ball come loose centrally. The attacker got just enough contact on his low shot to send it inside the right post and make it 2-1.
Strykers ‘keeper Gomez subsequently produced another strong save, diving to his right to parry a fierce Hernandez attempt from the top of the area. The 33-year-old Hernandez had done well to create space for himself by driving past a couple of opposition players.
Not long after the halftime break, the Savage found a third. With Gomez shielded, Puentes took full advantage by rifling a high, dipping shot toward the net that had the Strykers goaltender swatting at the ball in vain. The visitors from California then created a golden chance to cut their deficit in half, as Mansaray cleverly centered the ball to an unmarked Miller Jr. on the doorstep, only for ‘keeper Munoz to throw himself into the attempted finish for a goal-saving play.
The home side showed a ruthless response. Munoz chipped a pass deep into opposition territory that was skillfully received by Romero on the left. The native of Tijuana let the ball bounce once before hitting a perfect volley that whizzed through the penalty area and found the inside of the far post for a 4-1 score line.
The game’s final quarter saw some excellent positioning from Gomez to deny an open Jose Gilberto Lopez. However, Empire’s shot-stopper was left helpless on Chihuahua’s fifth of the night, as Bryan Macias set up Jorge Leal for a simple finish on a textbook counter. Puentes provided an even more impressive assist when he first-timed the ball to Lopez with the inside of his foot on a power play. The 28-year-old Lopez had little trouble tapping it over the goal line to make it 6-1.
With the Strykers committing the maximum number of players forward late in the game, their opponents would score two more times, Adriano Nunes and Puentes each finding the open net to round out the final result.
The Empire Strykers look to bounce back in their away clash with Mexico’s Monterrey Flash this coming Sunday November 26, followed by a trip to take on the St. Louis Ambush on December 9. Empire’s highly anticipated home opener against the Baltimore Blast at Ontario’s Toyota Arena is set for December 15. Tickets are available at here.