STRYKERS EYE DETHRONING SoCAL RIVAL
Last season the Ontario Fury accomplished something that no other team achieved during the Major Arena Soccer League regular season.
The team defeated the San Diego Sockers.
Jorge Deleon's goal only 31 seconds into overtime produced an 8-7 win on Jan. 9.
It turned out to be the only blemish on San Diego's record. The Sockers went on to rattle off 23 regular season victories en route to the Western Division title and their second consecutive league championship, suffering only a playoff road loss.
A big question is whether any team or teams can duplicate that feat and deny the Sockers a three-peat this season?
No doubt it will take a lot of blood, sweat, tears, energy and perhaps a little luck here and there.
The Fury, which has been rebranded as the Empire Strykers, is the Sockers' closest opponent, only 114 miles away. So, the southern California sides have played many times in the past, including in the 2021 MASL championship series. Ontario took San Diego to a mini-game, losing, 2-1, on Cesar Cerda's goal with 56 seconds remaining in overtime.
(It should be noted that the Chihuahua Savage bested San Diego in the first game of its Western Conference final series, 7-6, before the Sockers rallied to post victories in the final two matches to move on).
This weekend the southern California rivalry revs up again. The Strykers and Sockers will meet for the first two times this campaign, Saturday in Ontario, Calif. at 10:05 p.m. ET and in San Diego on Sunday at 8:05 p.m. ET.
Prior to kickoff, the Sockers will celebrate their sweet 16th indoor championship, the most of any team, indoors or outdoors in North America. They won their first title during the 1981-82 North American Soccer League indoor season.
"It's a winning culture," said Strykers defender Robert Palmer, a member of the 2021-22 MASL Elite Six. "They've made a lot of sacrifices of doing what's necessary for the team to win. You watch their games. They're never out, even when they're down five, four goals or whatever the time was."
That culture has continued into the 21st century.
"The core of that team was put together in 2016," Empire striker Franck Tayou, a four-time MASL MVP. "They've been together for at least four or five years. ... This is a core group that stayed together for 12 months out of the year. That's a huge advantage. Then you a guy like Kraig Chiles, who is just so good at what he does, regardless of his age, regardless of what anybody out there can say. When you have someone like that, we know that going against the team going it's very hard to deal with."
The only MASL team to win three successive championships was the Baltimore Blast, from 2016-18.
"Winning back-to-back championships, you obviously have a target on your back," Tayou said. "Everybody [opponent] that comes in performs at the highest level possible every single game. So, obviously it takes a toll on you."
Which brings us to another question to answer: How can the Sockers be beaten?
Needless to say, that is much easier said than done.
"You've got stop their counterattacks," Tayou said. "The foundation of this success is that is defensive work. They defend very well. The way they breakout is unreal.
"If you can possess the ball and create tangible chances, not just trade chances with them, then you're in a good space. You have to keep the ball long enough to where you could wear them down. You need quality to unbalance them."
Palmer added that teams need to stay away from blue cards, a two-minute penalty, which leads to set pieces and a man advantage.
"Then the biggest part is playing team defense," he said. "You've got to play disciplined, team defense, because there's too many weapons. The first and third lines are strong."
The Sockers' depth is, well, deep, ridiculously deep, with a myriad of talented players who can do damage.
Forwards Tavoy Morgan (39 goals, 10 assists) was named to the MASL Elite Six, and Leonardo de Oliveira (13 goals, 33 assists) was the league's Pass Master award winner.
And that's just the first wave. There's midfielders Brandon Escoto (23 goals, 21 assists), Charlie Gonzalez (23 goals, 16 assists), who led the league with five game-winning goals, and Christian Gutierrez (19 goals, 3 assists) and of course, Chiles (22 goals, 19 assists) at forward.
"You let it be easy for them, they're not a team where they are up four or five goals and you're going to come back," Palmer said. "They're going to blow you out. You just have to keep it close and play solid defense."
The Strykers, who missed out on the playoffs as the Fury last season (9-13-2 record and a third-place finish in the West), will try to start off on the right foot this weekend.
"We had opportunities last year to beat them. We just couldn't close out games," Tayou said. "I think that we've grown from that. We've learned. We have a lot of players that are coming back that have experience. It's going to be a battle and we are definitely looking forward to it."
Citing how close the team came to defeating the Sockers in its regular season finale - San Diego prevailed, 4-3, on April 3 - Tayou expected improvement.
"We have a lot of positive to build on," he said. "Obviously it's up to us and also the coaching staff. If we can get the players here to buy into what the system is and what our goals are, we're going to be a very good team. It takes some time for things to click but once it does, we're going to be very, very good."
Even with all his MVP and all-star selections and goals he has scored, there is one important item missing from Tayou's soccer resume – a league title.
"I'm very hungry for championships," he said.
"A championship is it's probably the only thing that I'm missing right now, as far as my career goes in the MASL. But it's going to happen. In order to win I have to focus on doing the little things. I have to get my team to buy into the vision of the coach. I have to get my team to believe that we can do it, because to be champions you have to play and act like champions.
"Once the players start believing that we are champions and start playing like champions then the dream is going to start getting clearer for everybody to understand. I know I'm going win a championship eventually. Once I win one, I want to win many."
We'll get our first glimpse of the Strykers against the two-time defending league champions this weekend.
Michael Lewis, the editor of FrontRowSoccer.com, can be followed on Twitter at @SoccerWriter. Lewis can be reached via email at Michael@FrontRowSoccer.com. His book Alive and Kicking: The incredible, but true story of the Rochester Lancers, recently was published. It can be purchased at https://tinyurl.com/2p8rzhpy.