Strykers “Want to Get on Track at St. Louis”

by Gunnar Berndt

MASL side looks for first win ahead of debut by Mexican star MarcFabián

Ontario, Calif. — Concluding a three-game road swing to start their 2023-24 MASL campaign, the Empire Strykers look to earn a first win in Saturday’s clash with host St. Louis Ambush. Following a dramatic offseason roster overhaul, the match provides an opportunity for Empire’s young squad to show continued growth prior to the debut of recent blockbuster signing, attacker Marco Fabián. A two-time FIFA World Cup veteran with Mexico, Fabián is expected to be available for his new team’s home opener against the Baltimore Blast next Friday. 

The Strykers take on the Ambush this coming Saturday at 4:05pm PT. The meeting at the Family Arena in St. Charles will be streamed live in English and Spanish via the MASL's channels on Twitch and Canela, respectively. Tickets to Empire’s December 15 clash with visiting Baltimore, likely to feature Marco Fabián, are available here.

Head Coach Paul Wright’s men opened their regular season in the most challenging way possible — with back-to-back games in Mexico. Facing a trial by fire, the Strykers fell 8-1 to defending champion Chihuahua Savage, whose dominant win was powered by two goals and an assist by star striker Hugo Puentes. Throughout the contest, the Savage displayed its trademark chemistry while the visitors struggled to put up a real challenge, their inexperience of playing together in competitive games proving too much to overcome. 

“It was always going to be a tough test going up against the team that recently won the title,” offered Empire forward Abdul Mansaray. “We were either going to go there and win, or we were going to get a lesson. Lessons are important, and I think we got a very good one that only pushed the team to get better.” 

The first signs of improvement followed almost instantly, as the Strykers took on another well-oiled attacking side in the Monterrey Flash a mere two days later. Despite tired legs and minds, the Empire players showed plenty of promise, battling their rested opponents to a 1-1 halftime score before collapsing in the third period and ultimately suffering a 9-2 defeat. While the Flash’s Jorge Luis Cortes bagged a hat-trick, the Strykers’ Mansaray enjoyed an excellent outing of his own, scoring both the day’s first and final goals. 

“When you play at Monterrey, you know it’s difficult to keep them quiet,” remarked the 27-year-old Mansaray. “That said, I felt we played a very good first half. Once we fell behind, it set the tone for the rest of the second half, but we still had a lot of positives to take away. Ever since that game, it’s been all about putting in the work to have a strong performance in all four quarters.” 

A dual citizen of the U.S. and the United Kingdom, Mansaray is in his third season with the club, having been away in 2022-23. The London native’s brace against the Flash already matches his goals total from all of 2021-22 and his goals total from seven games played during the 2021 campaign (regular season and playoffs), which was shortened by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

“I take a lot of pride in scoring, but scoring in a game we lose is bitter-sweet,” offered Mansaray. “I’d much prefer the rest of the team score all the goals and we win.” 

Both the Strykers and the Ambush will look to avoid going 0-3 in Saturday’s matchup. After dropping its season opener 2-1 in overtime to the visiting Milwaukee Wave, St. Louis went on to lose 7-2 away to the Kansas City Comets last weekend. 

With Empire having missed the postseason twice in a row, the focus for Head Coach Paul Wright is on developing a formula for success before his side finds itself in too deep a hole to climb out of. Wright joined the organization in early July, bringing along fellow San Diego Sockers legend Paul Dougherty as one of his assistants, the other being former Empire goalkeeper Jesus “Chuy” Molina. 

“Whether we win or lose, this feels like a good group that sticks together,” said forward Mansaray. “Even though we have so many new players, it’s been that way from the day we all met. It’s a pleasure playing under some giants of the game, and we’ve been working on a lot of new things in training. It takes time for all of that to click, but if we stay positive and patient, then I’m sure our time will come.” 

Against St. Louis, the Strykers attack will have to get past the sure hands of goalkeeper Paulo Nascimiento (1st in MASL with 32 saves, 2nd in MASL in 2022-23 with .745 save percentage), whose back line is anchored yet again by the always reliable Richard Schmermund (2nd in MASL with 7 blocked shots). While Sam Guernsey and Christian Briggs return, fellow defenders Will Nyamsi and Chris Kirby seem to have more central roles this season. 

The dynamic trio of William Eskay (led team with 30 points and 22 goals in 2022-23), Robert Kristo (tied for 2nd on team with 22 points and 15 goals in 2022-23) and Lucas Almeida (led team with 9 assists and tied for 2nd with 22 points in 2022-23) is back on offense for the Ambush. Billy Stimac scored against Kansas City, his only appearance thus far, to lead the side in points-per-game average (1.0).

Following the departure of most of Empire’s core, long-time captain Israel Sesay (tied for 7th in MASL with 35 blocked shots in 2022-23) is one of a few veterans tasked with guiding a young squad. He is joined on defense by new arrival Stefan Mijatovic (tied for 4th in MASL with 6 blocked shots). While Justin Stinson (3rd on team with 25 points and 15 goals in 2022-23) is back for the Strykers, fellow attacker Mansaray leads the Southern Californians in points (2), goals (2), and points-per-game average (1.0 in 2 games played). 

Empire will look for added leadership from a pair of high-profile signings during the offseason, former Baltimore Blast star Lucas Roque (4th in MASL with 30 goals and tied for 9th with 17 assists in 2022-23) and defender Claude Bilal Dielna, an alum of France’s 1 and Major League Soccer (MLS).

“The goal is always to win every single game,” said a determined Mansaray. “You could ask me at the beginning of the season, in the middle of the season, or at the end of the season. It doesn’t matter that we haven’t played together a lot or that it’s another away game. The only way to get on track is by believing you can. We want to get on track at St. Louis.” 

The Empire Strykers take on host St. Louis Ambush this coming Saturday, December 9. The team’s newest star, former Mexican international Marco Fabián, is expected to feature in the highly anticipated home opener against the Baltimore Blast on December 15. Tickets to the clash at Toyota Arena in Ontario can be found here.