Strykers Host Stars Sunday in Final Game of 2023-24

by Gunnar Berndt

Midfielder Perez: “Want to finish the season with a bang”

Ontario, Calif. — It’s a week of intense focus for the Empire Strykers. Eliminated from Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) playoff contention after a radical roster rebuild, Head Coach Paul Wright’s men look ahead to their season finale determined to leave Strykers fans with a sense of optimism for the 2024-25 campaign. This weekend’s Fan Appreciation Game sees 3-19-1 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) Empire welcome the red-hot Tacoma Stars to Ontario’s Toyota Arena, with tickets priced at just $5 and available for purchase here.

The Strykers and the Stars will clash on Sunday, March 31, at 4:05 p.m. PT. All the action will be streamed live in English on Twitch and will be accessible via the platform’s app and website. A complete channel guide for upcoming MASL games is here.

In 14-6-2 Tacoma, Empire faces a familiar foe, as the Southern Californians took on the Washingtonians in their most recent game last weekend, falling 5-10 in the second of consecutive away encounters. Dealing with little rest and a grueling travel schedule, the Strykers had dropped the first road match 1-10 to defending champion Chihuahua Savage.

Against the Stars, attacking engine Marco Fabian and company suffered defeat in part due to a subpar second quarter, in which they were outscored 1-4. In the game’s opening period, Fabián and teammate Alan Perez had each enjoyed impressive attacking shifts, the former bagging a hat-trick and the latter assisting on all three tallies. Perez would later add a goal of his own. Empire was bested on the day by a comprehensive opposition performance that saw Nick Perera and Michael Ramos collect three points each while ex-Strykers ace Chris Toth recorded a .750 save percentage between the sticks.

“It was such a close game in the first quarter,” recapped midfielder Perez, “but then Tacoma adjusted their tactics and style, which allowed them to break us down and catch some of our players in bad spots on the field. Their experience is a huge advantage. They know we’re far less experienced, and they capitalized on every chance they got. It got to a point where it was simply too late for us to adjust our own game and try to get back into it.”

The 24-year-old is enjoying a breakout campaign in the MASL, his points-per-game average of 1.0 ranking far above the 0.3 and 0.1 points he averaged in 2021-22 and 2022-23, respectively. Perez’s four-point showing against the Stars marked the culmination of a recent trend for the Los Angeles native, who has played a more central role in his side’s offense during the second half of the season. After recording eight points in his first ten games of 2023-24, he has put up 13 points in the 11 games since.

While Perez doesn’t feel that his team’s elimination from the postseason race has had a favorable effect on his output, he acknowledged the significance of recent departures by key attackers Justin Stinson and Stefan Mijatovic. The pair is currently on loan at Tacoma.

“The pressure of having to win never got to me because I always knew what I’m capable of,” said the former outdoor prospect. “It was simply about getting the chance to do what I’m best at. Ever since Justin and Stefan left, I think I’ve been on the field more for set plays, power plays, and other key situations. That has allowed me to show the coaches what I can do and that they can trust me in big moments. I’m always a hundred percent bought in to any game plan they draft up, and I feel that my love for the game has me prepared for anything.”

While the Stinson-less and Mijatovic-less Strykers have seen expanded contributions from several up-and-comers aside from Perez, former El Tri standout Fabián remains their undisputed attacking leader. The two-time FIFA World Cup veteran is tied for second league-wide in goals (32), tied for first in power play goals (6), tied for sixth in points (44), and tied for fifth in points-per-game average (2.2 in 20 games).

Fabián ranks tied with Perez for the most assists on Empire (12 each), and fellow midfielder Perez is runner-up on the team in goals (9), points (21), and points-per-game average (1.0 in 21 games). Notably, defender Momo Gueye not only ranks third in assists (10) but also tied for third in points (16). Gueye has the most blocked opposition shots of all Strykers (25), ahead of club icon and captain Israel Sesay (20).

Having dropped eleven straight, Empire sits in sixth and thus last place in the Western Conference, unable to catch the fifth-place Dallas Sidekicks, who have finally climbed out of the basement and now boast a four-point cushion courtesy of their recent wins at Baltimore and over visiting Texas.

Meanwhile, the Strykers’ final opponent of 2023-24, Tacoma, is riding a seven-game win streak and has received significant contributions from Empire loanees Stinson and Mijatovic. Stinson, especially, has turned heads with his dazzling attacking play, bagging 11 points on seven goals and four assists in four games for a stunning 2.8 points-per-game average. When combining his totals from his time with Empire and the Stars this season, the St. Louis native factors heavily into Tacoma’s offensive leaderboard. However, as per Stinson and Mijatovic’s loan agreements, neither is eligible to play against their parent club.

Despite having missed a number of games with injury, Nick Perera impressively leads the Tacoma attack together with Jamael Cox. With Perera topping the MASL in points-per-game average (3.0 in 13 games) and ranking tied for fourth in assists (20), Cox is tied for tenth in both goals (25) and points (40). Stinson sits tied for third in the league in power play goals (5) as well as second on the Stars in goals (21) and tied for second in assists with Cox and Mijatovic (15 each). Perera and Cox are runners-up among all Tacoma players in points (39) and points-per-game average (2.0 in 20 games), respectively.

Former Empire backstop Chris Toth ranks third in the league in saves (250), with Mijatovic, who has played as a defender and as a forward this season, leading Tacoma in blocked opposition shots (24) and Logan Jones (16) following behind in second.

Thanks to their recent series of victories, the Stars are engaged in a neck-and-neck dual with the Chihuahua Savage for second place in the West, trailing the Mexicans by a single point at two matches left. Prior to its 10-5 away win over the Strykers, Tacoma, which is assured to finish no lower than in third, downed the visiting Savage in a shootout following a 4-4 draw at home.

Alan Perez closed his remarks by discussing Sunday’s matchup, which comes on a special day for the fourth-year Stryker.

“My mindset hasn’t changed since the start of the season,” he said. “I’ve been doing all I can to help the team get better. Looking ahead to next season, I think about what we can do to be successful. We want to set the tone by doing our best in this final game. With Sunday being my birthday, I want to finish the season with a bang individually. As a group, we have to be focused defensively and adjust to any changes made by our opponent. I’m confident we can create chances. If we execute in key moments both defensively and offensively, we have a good chance to get the win.”

Alan Perez and the Empire Strykers host the Tacoma Stars in their season finale and Fan Appreciation Game on Sunday, March 31. Tickets are $5 and are available here.