Strykers Open MASL Campaign with Mexico Road Swing
Ontario, Calif. — It’s a baptism by fire for the Empire Strykers this week, as the California-based club’s revamped squad will need to quickly find its feet for back-to-back away games in Mexico to open the 2023-24 Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) campaign. In addition to the challenges posed by a grueling travel schedule and little rest, Head Coach Paul Wright’s men will be up against the defending champion, Chihuahua Savage, as well as the side which had the Savage on the verge of defeat in last season’s Western Conference semifinals, the Monterrey Flash.
“We’ve had a really good preseason and the team has gelled together very well,” offered Paul Wright in looking ahead to his first time on the sideline with a professional indoor team. “That said, we haven’t had any competitive matches, which has everyone eager to get out and play. There’s no better way to find out where you stand than by comparing yourself to the best. The sooner we can gauge that, the sooner we can get to work, get better, and ultimately go after a championship.”
A San Diego Sockers legend and a lethal attacker throughout his own days on the turf, the now 54-year-old Wright did not seem overwhelmed by the occasion of starting his coaching career against one of the toughest opponents in the sport. “I don’t think it will be all that different from when I was a player,” he said. “Obviously I don’t get to go out there, but the intensity, the energy, and the communication are all familiar and come naturally to me. I’m not worried about the transition.”
Incidentally, Wright got a preview of Friday’s foe this past September, as he coached the U.S. national arena soccer team in a high-profile exhibition game against Mexico at Ontario’s Toyota Arena. The Americans bagged a hard-fought 6-5 victory over an El Tri side that featured numerous players from the Savage.
“Since Chihuahua has its full roster available, I’m anticipating an even stronger team than we saw back then,” said the man in charge of the Strykers. “In their small arena, they like to press high and they’re very quick in their attacks. We’ll have to be able to handle not only the pressure on the field but also the atmosphere around it. I do believe we prepared well and that we’re ready for anything.”
The sentiment was echoed by long-time Empire captain Israel Sesay, who reflected on past trips to Chihuahua’s Arena Corner Sport.
“That’s a very difficult venue to play in,” said the Maryland native, who embarks on his eleventh season with the Strykers. “First of all, it’s a small field, which their guys are very familiar with and know how to take advantage of. They’re very good one on one, and we expect them to come at us and take a lot of shots, so each of us has to be ready to defend in a very hectic, loud atmosphere. Every time Chihuahua scores, those fans go crazy. We can’t let that get to our heads.”
Following a concerted effort by the Empire front office to build a younger, fitter roster during the offseason, Sesay is one of a few veterans tasked with guiding a group ripe with potential but lacking in experience. While attacking ace Justin Stinson returns, the Strykers will look to added leadership from new arrivals like former Baltimore Blast goal machine Lucas Roque and defender Claude Bilal Dielna, an alum of France’s Ligue 1 and Major League Soccer (MLS).
Unlike the Strykers, the Savage has retained the majority of its squad, which finished second in the East in 2022-23 and knocked off conference top seed San Diego Sockers prior to its triumph over Baltimore in the final of the playoffs. Adrian Miller and Luis Medrano are expected to once again serve as anchors in the back. Meanwhile, the attacking excursions of defender Roberto Escalante will support a potent offense that is without the recently departed Edgar Gonzalez but features fellow explosive forward Hugo Puentes as well as the well-oiled midfield quartet of Carlos Hernandez, Enrique Canez, Bryan Macias, and Jorge Rios.
Empire’s Paul Wright stressed the threat posed by a team that will only have gained in confidence after hoisting the Ron Newman Cup. “We respect the defending champions enough to give them our full attention,” he said. “That’s why we’re really taking it one step at a time and not thinking about Monterrey yet. As coaches, we plan to get together and make adjustments after the Chihuahua game and after assessing how the guys are feeling and how everyone performed.”
Based on several past journeys south of the border, Strykers defender Israel Sesay offered up his insight into Sunday’s meeting with the Flash, which finished third in the 2022-23 Western Conference standings behind Chihuahua. Monterrey plays its home games at Arena Borregos, having moved from Arena Monterrey, where Sesay and company bagged a dramatic shootout victory back in February.
Said the 33-year-old. “What makes it tougher is that they will be fresh while for us it will be our second game after very short rest. Last season’s win took everything we had. I’m expecting more of the same. They’ll try to put us under a lot of pressure and their fans will be right on top of us. We really need to be tuned in because they don’t give you any time to breathe.”
The Flash returns most of its spine, including defender Hector Vallejo, midfielder-defender Walter Ayovi, midfielders Erick Rosas and Alexis Espinosa, and the attack-minded threesome of Genaro Castillo, Luis Cortes, and Daniel Villela. Former Chihuahua star Edgar Gonzalez adds firepower at the forward position.
Strykers captain Sesay concluded his preview of the back-to-back matches in Mexico on a cautiously optimistic note.
“We have a lot of new players, who look very hungry,” said the defender. “Everyone has trained and prepared well, and now the guys want to go out there and perform. It’s not easy to play twice in three days, which means we have to stay mentally sharp and take it game by game. We’re focused on Chihuahua first, and then we’ll try to get a good recovery the next day. These trips to Mexico are exciting because we love going to tough environments where everyone is against us. We can’t wait to get our season started.”
The Empire Strykers kick off their MASL campaign with a pair of road games against the Chihuahua Savage on November 24 and the Monterrey Flash on November 26, followed by a trip to take on the St. Louis Ambush on December 9. Empire’s highly anticipated home opener against the Baltimore Blast at Ontario’s Toyota Arena is set for December 15. Tickets are available here.