Strykers Look to Bounce Back Against Stars, Sockers
Empire’s Gueye believes his side “will turn things around”
Ontario, Calif. — Having split its recent pair of must-win games, the Empire Strykers have spent the time since Tuesday’s home defeat to the Texas Outlaws trying to make sense of it all as they prepare for another pair of back-to-back Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) matches. Sitting one spot below the Western Conference playoff line at 2-6-0 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses), the Southern Californians will stay within the friendly confines of Ontario’s Toyota Arena for both Sunday’s clash with fellow postseason contenders Tacoma Stars and Wednesday’s meeting with the mighty San Diego Sockers.
Empire takes on Tacoma on January 14 at 4:05 p.m. PT and San Diego on January 17 at 7:05 p.m. PT. Tickets for both games are available here. All the action will be streamed live in English on Twitch, with Wednesday’s match also being available in Spanish on Canela. A full channel lineup for MASL broadcasts may be found here.
On January 6, the Strykers celebrated their best performance of their campaign so far, downing host Dallas Sidekicks 10-4. It was the second time in a row nominal forward Moustapha “Momo” Gueye dropped to the back for Empire while nominal defender Stefan Mijatovic played up top. The moves, which were first tried out by Head Coach Paul Wright in a December 28 home game against Tacoma, paid real dividends at Dallas, with the Strykers defense looking much improved and Mijatovic contributing a goal and two assists. Marco Fabián found the net twice in the contest, adding a pair of helpers, and Justin Stinson bagged a hat-trick.
Although Empire next fell 10-5 to the visiting Texas Outlaws, they again seemed to profit from Gueye and Mijatovic’s changed roles, as they went toe-to-toe with an outstanding opponent until seven minutes into the second half. Mijatovic scored the opener and recorded the assist on the final tally of the game.
“Stefan is collecting points up there, and he’s really enjoying it,” said forward-turned-defender Gueye, who has been drawing on his experience as a left back in traditional soccer. “I’m comfortable in my new position too, and I want to help make us harder to break down. Any of our guys can score at any time, so if we keep other teams from scoring, we will win. Most of us feel that switching Stefan and me has already made a huge difference. Whatever makes the team better is what we should keep doing.”
With the Outlaws having led Tuesday’s match by a single goal at intermission, the two sides battled each other fiercely for the first half of the third period. Then Texas midfielder Jorge Deleon rifled an unlikely long-range rocket into the bottom lefthand corner, and the hosts’ resistance seemed to be broken, as they would concede four more in a row. It was another learning experience for Head Coach Wright’s young squad, which features few indoor veterans and a number of recent transfers from the outdoor game.
“Experienced players know the guys they’re up against,” explained third-year Stryker Gueye, who has seen his minutes increase significantly this season. “For example, Deleon’s goal was scored by someone who has a great shot from distance. If you’ve seen him a lot, you’ll know to step up and prevent that. With some players, you know to drop back. With other players, you force them onto their weak foot. That comes with having been in the league and being familiar with everyone. It’s hard for our rookies to get there in two months while they’re still learning the indoor game.”
While Empire ‘keeper Brandon Gomez is second league-wide in saves (100) and Mijatovic is third in blocked opposition shots (19), Fabián and fellow Mexican Gerardo Jurado are tied for tenth in assists (7 each). Midfielder Fabián also sits seventh in the MASL in goals-per-game average (2.6 in 5 games), with Mijatovic (1.3 in 8 games) trailing the former El Tri star in the Strykers’ internal ranking.
Israel Sesay, who earned his 100th career MASL regular season point against Texas, has the second-most blocked opposition shots on Empire (10). Justin Stinson leads the team in goals (7), followed by Abdul Mansaray, Mijatovic, and Fabián (6 each).
Sunday’s adversary, Tacoma, is currently third in the West with a 3-3-0 record, having recently lost 9-3 to San Diego on the road and downed Utica City 10-7 at home. Indoor legend Nick Perera leads the league in assists (14) and points-per-game average (3.7 in 6 games), in addition to sitting second in points (22). His teammate Jamael Cox is tied for fourth in the MASL in power play goals (2). Perera leads the Stars in goals (8), with Alessandro Canale (7) ranking second and also trailing behind the 6’3” forward in points-per-game average (1.5 in 6 games). Logan Jones’ three helpers are enough for second-best among all Tacoma players.
A mere three blocked opposition shots by Chase Hanson lead the Stars roster, which is in line with the uncharacteristically high number of goals given up thus far (42 in 6 games) by ex-Empire ace Chris Toth between the sticks. Panamanian icon and 2018 FIFA World Cup veteran Román Torres is unlikely to travel for Tacoma.
“We’re in these games,” remarked the Strykers’ Gueye in reflecting on some of the losses his side has suffered in recent weeks, including the 7-5 home defeat to Tacoma in late December. “When we click, we’re very dangerous, but we have so many new pieces that it’s easy to get thrown off when something goes wrong. The third quarter usually wins the game, so we have to stay focused in the second half, no matter what happens. Small mistakes can make the difference. Once we fix those, I think we’ll be a real force.”
Looking to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight time, Empire would receive a major boost from back-to-back wins against the Stars as well as Wednesday’s opponent, rival San Diego. The Sockers have been their usual winning selves this season, sitting second in the West with a perfect 5-0-0 record and three games in hand on first-place Texas. The two-time MASL champs most recently defeated Tacoma 9-3 at home, having previously downed the visiting Strykers 7-3 in the two teams’ first meeting of 2023-24.
Ex-Empire standout Charlie Gonzalez is tied for second league-wide in points-per-game average (3.0 in 5 games), tied for ninth in points (15), and tied for tenth in assists (7). Gonzalez and his Sockers teammate Brandon Escoto are tied for fourth in the MASL in power play goals (2). While another former Stryker, Leonardo DeOliveira, and Tavoy Morgan jointly rank eighth in the league in points-per-game average (both 2.4 in 5 games), fellow San Diego ace Kraig Chiles (2.3 in 3 games) follows closely behind in tenth. Boris Pardo boasts the third-lowest goal-against average (4.67) and the fourth-most wins of all MASL ‘keepers.
Gonzalez and Morgan lead the Sockers in goals (8 each), with Morgan and DeOliveira sharing second on the team in points (12 each). Morgan also has the second-most assists among the San Diego players (4).
In looking ahead to the upcoming pair of tasks, Empire’s Momo Gueye offered cautious optimism while advocating for a mindset that is less concerned with the team’s goals for the season and more concerned with continuing to progress in each outing.
“I don’t think all the talk about our record and making the playoffs helps us,” said Gueye, who is a dual citizen of the U.S. and Senegal. “We need to take it one game at a time and focus on the details. It’s the only way to build chemistry between guys with a bunch of different backgrounds and playing styles. When it starts to gel, it’s truly beautiful. We’re a team that never stops fighting, and we’ve had really good stretches against some very good opponents. Once we can get it together for an entire game, I think we’ll keep it together and turn things around.”
Momo Gueye and his Empire Strykers take on fellow postseason contenders Tacoma Stars this coming Sunday, January 14, followed by the clash with rival San Diego Sockers on Wednesday, January 17. Tickets for both games at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here.