Nick Mendola wouldn’t say his wife was upset when he gave her the news. But five years later, he can still see the look on Lacey’s face when he told her he was going to become owner of a soccer franchise.
“I think she was kind of befuddled,” Mendola said Friday. “That was most people’s reaction. What do you mean, you’re buying a team? How does someone who is 27 and working in radio buy a team with his buddies?”
Of course, it helped that the team came cheap, and that no one else seemed interested. In 2008, Buffalo City FC ceased operations after two years in the National Premier Soccer League, a far-flung national amateur circuit. The owner, an Englishman, was eager to unload the franchise.
Mendola, a freelance sports writer and broadcaster who was working for WGR at the time, couldn’t resist. He was an avid soccer fan who had attended some of the NPSL games and felt the sport was about to take off in this town.
So he and three of his close friends all pitched in a few thousand to take ownership of the club. The team was reborn in 2010 as FC Buffalo. Today, in their fifth season, the Blitzers (after Wolf Blitzer) are still going strong, a rising franchise in the NPSL.
It remains a struggle. FC Buffalo operates on a shoestring budget. They’re still paying off debt from the first season. They practice at 6 a.m., so players and coaches can get to other jobs. The team meals mainly consist of $5 foot-long subs.
Though local interest in the team has been rising, they lost All High Stadium as a home this season when the city dragged its feet in negotiations. They’re playing their home matches this season at the Demske Sports Complex at Canisius College.
On Saturday morning, the 20 FC Buffalo players – mostly current college players from Western New York and around the country – piled into a couple of vans and headed off to Indianapolis for a conference game against the Indiana Fire. Mendola drove one of the vans. Brendan Murphy, the head coach, drove the equipment in a separate car.
To break up the trip, they stopped in Columbus, Ohio, to watch the Champions League final between Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid on TV. Mendola and Murphy figured it would be a nice bonding experience. After all, it’s love of the game that really drives these athletes.
“We all keep plowing ahead,” Mendola said in an interview at Mes Que, the soccer bar on Hertel Avenue in the city. “I know ‘For love of the game’ gets thrown around a lot, but with soccer it’s really true.”
Murphy, the head coach at D’Youville College, has an abiding passion for soccer. A Williamsville North graduate, he won an NCAA title as a goalkeeper at St. Lawrence. After training overseas with English pro teams, he was an assistant at Buffalo State, Niagara and UB.
He’s the head goalie coach for NYS West, the local Olympic Development Program. “I’m a full-time soccer coach,” said Murphy, 34, “but I have five different part-time jobs. I also have two kids.”
Mendola has a 3-year-old son, Asher, who was born after his first season as owner. He has watched his little boy grow up along with his other baby, the soccer team. He says Asher sees the FC Buffalo players like gods, the way Nick did the Sabres when he was growing up.
This Blitzers team, now 1-0-1, could be the best yet. Last year, in Murphy’s first season as coach, they went 8-5 and reached the playoffs for the first time. They added depth by adding several quality players from outside the area, including four from Point Loma Nazarene College in San Diego.
Perhaps their biggest addition was Russell Cicerone, who was MAC freshman of the year last season at UB. Cicerone, a Michigan native, planned to attend Western Michigan, but switched to Buffalo when Stu Riddle left Kalamazoo to take the UB head job early in 2013.
Cicerone was named player of the week in the 78-team NPSL last week after scoring two goals in a win over Erie and setting up the only goal in a 1-1 draw against Cleveland. Cicerone said simply reaching the NPSL playoffs won’t be enough this year. They expect to win a game.
“No,” Cicerone said. “The way we looked in the first two games, especially the way we moved the ball in our first game, I would be surprised if we didn’t win one.”
Murphy, who coached the franchise when it was known as Queen City FC in 2007, agreed that winning a playoff game is the goal. “I’m 100 percent confident we have better players,” he said. “I feel, so far, that we have better chemistry than last year.
“The owners have done a great job of promoting the brand and building the fan base,” Murphy said. “I think over the first four years, maybe the soccer hadn’t quite caught up. Last year we showed we could compete and this year we brought in players from all over the country.
“I feel like we can compete on a national level,” Murphy said. “We have a lot of work to do. But I think it’s not far out of our reach. The team we just beat, the Erie Admirals, was in the Final Four last year. That shows us we can compete, and that’s our goal.”
Local support is a big part of it. Youth soccer is growing in Buffalo, and FC Buffalo is hoping to forge a stronger connection. Mendola said the team has run clinics and camps, and wants to help establish a place for kids to play soccer on a year-round basis in the city.
Murphy believes soccer interest is at a tipping point here. Buffalo was the nation’s No. 2-rated TV market for the Premier League title game on NBC two Sundays ago. Mes Que can get so crowded for big international matches that it’s difficult to get through the door.
“Mes Que has been a huge supporter of ours,” Mendola said. “They get 150 people in here for an Arsenal game and the bartender is telling people about FC Buffalo. Our banner is hung up under the cash register. They streamed our playoff game on the Internet for our fans to watch here.”
Mendola says the key is getting more of those fans to come see FC Buffalo. He’s confident the team will continue to grow. They’re basically breaking even, despite charging only $5 a ticket. He said he could walk away now, knowing someone else would snatch up the team.
“But I have no desire to do that,” Mendola said. “My attitude is, ‘Let’s do it. Let’s be the ones who buck the odds and rise above our mistakes.’ ”
Why buy a soccer team? That’s obvious. If you love the game, it can take you on the ride of a lifetime, even if you have to drive the van.