Picking a best XI from Western New York's four NCAA Division I schools is by no means an easy task, but it's worth doing to recognize the achievements of college soccer players and to praise the players who, by examining a simple box score, would not necessarily stick out. (In this case, "best" means most valuable and not "most points" or "most clean sheets.)
Let's meet them:
GOALKEEPER: Andrew Coughlin, Canisius, senior
Even though he’s had a few uncharacteristic blunders in 2015, he’s the Big 4’s best shot-stopper and organizer of his back four. The Syracuse transfer set Canisius single-season school records for shutouts (8) and goals against average (.85) as a junior, and while he’s unlikely to duplicate those stats, his reliability and consistency are two reasons that the Griffs have high hopes for Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference play. He's further proof that you should never discount a keeper just because he's under six-feet tall.
Pro he’s most like: Dan Kennedy, FC Dallas (MLS)
DEFENDER: Alex De Carolis, Canisius, senior
After a tremendous freshman season that landed him on the MAAC All-Rookie Team, De Carolis had mediocre sophomore and junior seasons, but early signs from his final campaign are promising. The marauding left back’s two assists against UMass Lowell defend this resurgence, and given the Griffs’ recent troubles on offense, De Carolis’ contributions going forward become even more crucial.
Pro he’s most like: Marcelo, Real Madrid
DEFENDER: Fox Slotemaker, UB, sophomore
One of four underclassmen in the Big 4 Best XI, Slotemaker is a big, smart center back who dominates in the air at both ends for Stu Riddle’s program. His distribution and consistency still need some work, but there’s a strong chance he’ll be an All-MAC selection before the end of his career.
Pro he’s most like: Vincent Kompany, Manchester City
DEFENDER: Thomas Teupen, Canisius, junior
Canisius’ Teupen, the Griffs’ lone All-MAAC preseason pick, is similar to Slotemaker in his gifts, but the German may boast even more of a bite to his game. An injury has temporarily derailed his junior season, but when healthy, the 6’4 destroyer forces opponents to think twice before attacking the middle of the Canisius defense.
Pro he’s most like: Ashley Williams, Swansea
DEFENDER: Daniel Cramarossa, UB, junior
Cramarossa’s sublime technical ability gave UB head coach Stu Riddle the confidence to shift him from left back to holding midfield, where “Cram” has covered a ton of ground, broken up attacks and repeatedly shown top-level change of direction with the ball at his feet. He’ll only get better in his new role as he continues to acclimate.
Pro he’s most like: Morgan Schneiderlin, Manchester United
MIDFIELDER: Russell Cicerone, UB, junior
The dynamic winger has the greatest likelihood of reaching Major League Soccer, the U.S.’s highest level, than any other Big 4 men’s player. The talisman blends tremendous quickness, flair rarely seen in Western New York soccer and an unwavering confidence to beat defenders with the ball at his feet. His clinical finishing, however, is the trait that sets him apart -- like this the viral missile from midfield in 2014. Immediately recognizable because of his striking pink shoes, Cicerone attracts double and triple teams from opponents, who essentially game-plan around him.
Pro he’s most like: Eden Hazard, Chelsea
MIDFIELDER: Nico Baudo, Canisius, senior
Baudo came to Canisius with massive expectations; he’d made the roster for Italy, his home nation, in the U-18 World Cup, and outclassed the competition in his freshman year at Nyack College. He didn’t skip much of a beat for the Griffs, finishing in the team’s top three in scoring the last two years despite playing a holding midfield role. A diminutive, feisty two-way player who prefers the ball at his feet, Baudo has been pushed higher up the pitch for his senior season. How quickly he adjusts could determine how far the Griffs go in Disney.
Pro he’s similar to: Santi Cazorla, Arsenal
MIDFIELDER: Kieran Toland, St. Bonaventure, sophomore
Toland made his presence felt immediately in 2015, striking twice against NJIT in the season opener, capped by an overtime winner that led to this breathtaking picture above, courtesy of Bonaventure Athletics. He’s more Marco Etcheverry than he is Clint Dempsey -- in other words, his superb technical ability and vision trump middle-of-the-road athleticism, and he’s more easily shut down than a player like Cicerone. Still, regular moments of brilliant footwork and distribution remind fans that Toland is a special player on a bad team.
Pro he’s most like: Steven Gerrard, Los Angeles Galaxy
MIDFIELDER: Mo Kretschmer, Canisius, sophomore
Teupen’s countryman Kretschmer is the quintessential holding midfielder -- Barcelona’s Sergei Busquets is an apt comparison of style. Tidy, if not especially flashy, in his possession and distribution, the sophomore connects the defense and the midfield with aplomb, but also boasts enough versatility to drop in for teammates at other positions in a pinch. He doesn’t show much of an inclination to get forward, but the Griffins have enough players with that mindset.
Pro he’s most like: Sergio Busquets, Barcelona
STRIKER: Andrew Ferguson, Niagara, senior
The elder Ferguson brother proved his worth to Niagara during his early season absence due to injury, as the Purple Eagles started 0-6 before getting back on track with a pummeling of St. Bonaventure. A deceptive forward with poise and brilliant touch -- plus a decent dose of flair -- Ferguson played two years with the Marshall Thundering Herd before joining his brother, Matthew, at NU. Show up early to a Niagara match to watch the pair juggling in warm-up -- it’s good entertainment.
Pro he’s most like: Memphis, Manchester United
STRIKER: Scott Doney, UB, sophomore
A transfer from Marshall, Doney joins three of his New Zealand countrymen at UB. He’s already developed a strong rapport with Cicerone, and his work rate and ability to lay the ball off are assets to the Bulls’ attack. Doney is capable in front of goal, too, but he’ll have to monitor his balky ankles.
Pro he's most like: Graziano Pelle, Southampton
Honorable mention: Marcus Hanson, UB; Ryan Schroen, Canisius
Email Ben Tsujimoto at email@example.com
Story topics: Andrew Coughlin/ Andrew Ferguson/ Best 11/ Best Eleven/ Best XI/ Canisius Griffins/ Canisius soccer/ Daniel Cramarossa/ Kieran Toland/ Niagara soccer/ Nico Baudo/ Russell Cicerone/ Scott Doney/ St. Bonaventure soccer/ UB Bulls/ UB Soccer