Strykers Suffer Late Heartbreak in 3-4 Loss to Comets

by Gunnar Berndt

Defenses, goalkeepers reign supreme as Empire handed last-minute defeat

WATCH: Miguel Ponce postgame comments (English & Spanish)
WATCH: Brian Orozco postgame comments (English & Spanish)

Ontario, Calif. — Having put in their best defensive performance of the 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) campaign thus far, the Empire Strykers suffered a heartbreaking 3-4 defeat to the visiting Kansas City Comets on Wednesday evening. The game’s final minute and change featured a dramatic equalizer by the Strykers as well as the Comets’ winner moments later. While Empire’s Brian Orozco and Kansas City’s Nicolau Neto enjoyed standout shifts at ‘keeper, as they had done in the two sides’ February 10 meeting in Missouri, Orozco’s teammate Marco Fabián scored in his 14th straight MASL match.

The narrow loss sees Orozco, Fabián, and company fall to 3-13-1 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) on the season.

The Strykers displayed impressive intensity in the opening quarter, giving their opposition little time or space to operate. After several promising attacks, Head Coach Paul Wright’s men were finally rewarded for their hard work when Fabian fired home an Alan Perez helper. Empire could have doubled its advantage in the second period, Howard Miller Jr. picking out Perez, who forced an outstanding kick-save from Neto.

Not long after the quality block, Strykers netminder Orozco provided evidence of his own abilities. A wide-open Ray Lee released a goal-bound rocket from close range that was denied in spectacular fashion by Orozco, who went airborne and tipped the ball over the bar. Kansas City was punished for the missed opportunity when Fabián found himself with space at the top of the area and unselfishly set up a well-positioned Miller Jr. on the right. Miller Jr.’s first-time finish inside the far post marked a meaningful moment for the 27-year-old, who was playing in his first game after a lengthy injury absence.

Seemingly unphased, the Comets cut their deficit to 1-2 when ‘keeper Neto played a clever long pass that skipped off the boards and found Zach Reget on the left, the in-form attacker firing inside the right post from a difficult angle. The hosts should have reestablished their previous cushion before the end of the opening half, Adam James opting not to go for goal from point-blank range and instead squaring to teammate Riley Urie. Apparently caught by surprise, Urie failed to make contact with the ball, and the chance evaporated.

Quenton Swift had another great look for Empire, but his powerful attempt from inside the area was stifled by Neto’s second outstanding kick-save of the match. It would be the final noteworthy chance before intermission.

Kansas City had the edge on intensity in the third quarter, and the Eastern Conference outfit drew level with a hard drive from ex-Empire ace Robert Palmer. Things would turn from bad to worse for the Strykers when they fell behind 2-3 in the most unfortunate of ways. Ignacio Flores laid the ball off to Lee on a top-of-the-arc restart and the defender fired wide right, but the ball found its way into the net via the heels of ‘keeper Orozco.

The game’s dramatic fourth period saw the Comets come close to doubling their advantage on a breakaway. Streaking down the left at the tail end of an Empire power play, Reget switched sides to an unmarked Flores at the doorstep, only to see Orozco add to his long list of impressive stops. This time, the first-year MASL backstop stood his ground and reacted at the perfect time to keep out the attempted finish. Orozco would shine one more time before the end of the contest, rushing off his line to deny Leonardo Acosta one on one.

The pair of blocks set the stage for Perez’s emotional equalizer with just over a minute left to play. The Los Angeles native thought he had forced overtime in back-to-back matches when he narrowly missed wide right before smashing home the rebound to make it 3-3. However, unlike in Empire’s February 18 home game against San Diego, Perez’s late leveler wouldn’t hold, as Kansas City’s Christian Anderaos poured cold water on the home fans’ celebrations. With 43 seconds left on the clock, the midfielder bagged an unassisted tally that gave his side a hard-fought victory.

After traveling to face long-time rivals San Diego Sockers this coming Friday, March 1, The Empire Strykers return home for a match against defending champion Chihuahua Savage on Tuesday, March 5. Tickets to clash at Ontario’s Toyota Arena are available here.