Ontario, Calif. — The Empire Strykers played arguably their best game of the 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) campaign on Thursday evening, only to fall in dramatic fashion to hosts Tacoma Stars. Holding the lead late in the closing quarter, Head Coach Paul Wright's men conceded two goals in quick succession to suffer their fourth consecutive defeat, which sees them drop to 2-9-0 (wins-losses-overtime/shootout losses) on the season.
While Strykers Marco Fabián and Justin Stinson enjoyed standout attacking displays, each bagging a hat-trick and an assist, former Empire goalkeeper Chris Toth powered the Tacoma win with a number of key saves. Toth's teammates Nick Perera and Jamael Cox led their side's attack with three points apiece.
After some impressive possession play by Empire in the opening stages, the Southern Californians took the lead when Stinson drove a low shot inside the right post. Finding themselves defending a power play not long thereafter, Stinson and company were lucky not to concede the equalizer when an unmarked Cory Keitz sent his seemingly simple finish over the bar. The Stars did capitalize on the man advantage moments later, Cox making it 1-1.
The Strykers subsequently reclaimed the lead, Mexican star Fabián firing home on a Stinson helper, but the home side again showed a strong response and nearly reaped the reward. Empire 'keeper Brandon Gomez rushed off his line and threw himself into the attempted finish by Cox, denying the midfielder his second. Cox would not be denied on a subsequent opportunity, converting an assist from Alex Caceres for a 2-2 score line.
If not for a point-blank block by Toth against Fabián, Empire could have taken the lead yet again. The visitors came even closer to netting their third when forward Abdul Mansaray rounded Toth on a breakaway but drifted too far wide for a shot into the open goal.
The Strykers were punished for the squandered looks in the second period, indoor legend Perera giving Tacoma its first lead on a gorgeous interplay with Cox. However, it would soon be 3-3, as Stinson netted courtesy of a beautiful solo effort and a low drive inside the left upright. Empire then had a pair of golden chances denied by Toth. First, the 34-year-old backstop confronted Harold Hanson one on one, managing to get a touch on the ball and prevent the go-ahead goal. Then, he produced an outstanding foot save to keep out wide-open Strykers captain Israel Sesay.
The old cliché of missed opportunities rang true when Perera muscled Fabián off the ball on a counterattack and rifled a bullet into the upper ninety to give the Stars a 4-3 halftime lead.
Following intermission, the away side reemerged from the locker rooms with impressive intensity. Toth provided a clinic in both positioning and braveness, blocking an excellent Empire chance with his throat as he threw himself into Stinson's first-time attempt at the doorstep. Stefan Mijatovic had set up his teammate via a clever ball off the boards. 'Keeper Toth would be left helpless on Stinson's next look, Empire's attacking ace bagging his third to make it 4-4. The Strykers continued to ride the momentum all the way to another tally, Perez giving his team the lead on a Fabián helper.
The hosts leveled things back up courtesy of a trademark Perera goal. Receiving the ball with his back to the net, the 37-year-old did well to shield it, turn on his marker, and pick out the bottom lefthand corner for his second of the contest. Toth then came up with another excellent play, as he produced a one-handed diving parry to keep out Fabián's fierce drive on a power play. However, Empire's attacking leader would not be denied moments later. Back to even numbers, the 2014 and 2018 FIFA World Cup veteran made it 5-6 by releasing a stunning long-range bullet from the yellow line.
The game's tightly contested closing quarter saw little in the way of dangerous looks until Strykers defender Mo Alewine came up with a late last-ditch sliding tackle to block away what seemed like a sure strike by Alessandro Canale. To the Stars' credit, they refused to give up and rewarded themselves with the dramatic equalizer at just over two minutes to play. Acting as a sixth attacker, netminder Toth took a shot from the top of the arc that replays appeared to show was touched over the line by Tyler John.
Things would go from bad to worse for Empire when Tacoma's Kyle Rivers bagged the winning goal with just over a minute and a half left to play. The 26-year-old took full advantage of a breakway opportunity by playing a perfect wall pass to himself and streaking down the field for a one-on-one against 'keeper Gomez, who had little chance to stop the cool finish inside the far post. The hosts did well to prevent any dangerous Strykers looks in the remaining moments, holding on for a dramatic 7-6 victory.
The Empire Strykers return to Ontario's Toyota Arena this coming Sunday, June 28, for a meeting with the St. Louis Ambush. All tickets purchased at www.tixr.com/groups/theempirestrykers are 70% off with promo code “70OFF”.