Looking to rebound from last Saturday's 1-0 loss to the Rochester River Dogz, FC Buffalo travels three hours west to take on AFC Cleveland in the Wolves' first road match of 2016 at 7 p.m. May 21 at Independence High School.
Finally with a fully stocked roster, FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy will face a different kind of tough decision Saturday; while preparation for Rochester was riddled with trying to form a makeshift back four, this week has been a battle to determine who best fits in the 18-man roster vs. Cleveland. Competition for spots is fierce.
1) New faces for FC Buffalo: Sorely lacking from the Wolves' 18 against Rochester was a creative No. 10, the player who sits behind the target striker and pulls the strings offensively. With more numbers arriving, Murphy can now choose between two better-suited players in Albany's Philip Persson and Wofford's Nicky Watson.
The former's college stats -- five goals and 13 assists in 72 matches -- suggest he's more creator than finisher, while the latter, who spent two years at Niagara University, could step in as one of the best finishers on FC Buffalo. Both players will be tasked with injecting life into an attack that looked confused and misshapen against the River Dogz.
2) Old faces return: The absences of Kendell McFayden and Chris Walter were also noticeable in the opener, as both served one-game suspensions for their red cards against the Royals in last year's season finale. McFayden's ball-winning ability in the back would have allowed Ian McGrath to play in his more natural role in the center of the midfield, while Walter's energy and grit could have swung the momentum from several positions.
Expect the pair to be in Murphy's 18 on Saturday after a strong Buffalo District Soccer League tune-up in midweek.
3) Back-four additions: McFayden isn't the only starting-caliber defender who could make his 2016 debut. Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year David Acuna Camacho should slot in at right back and be tasked with shutting down either of Cleveland's wingers, Antonio Manfut or Tom Beck.
America East first-teamer Keith Traut, teammate of Persson's at Albany, will likely start centrally with McFayden, with Paredes on the left side. The back line could be frighteningly good as they jell.
4) Advantage of legs: AFC Cleveland is set to play its fourth match in 11 days; the Royals beat PDL's Portland Phoenix in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup on May 11, downed Indy Eleven NPSL in the league opener on May 14, then fell to United Soccer League professional side St. Louis FC, 2-0, in the second round of the Open Cup, on May 18.
That's a heavy early-season schedule for a team without a lot of depth, and as you saw Detroit City FC look sloppy last night in its fifth game in 10 days, the quick turnarounds take their toll physically. If FC Buffalo can push the tempo in the first half and switch the point of attack quickly, then Carter Poe's squad may have trouble adjusting.
5) AFC Cleveland's squad makeup: Poe, a former AFC Cleveland midfielder, trots out a familiar squad -- a few players, like Vinny Bell, Beck and Manfut, once played alongside their coach. A physically ideal target striker, Bell still can produce -- he scored the game's lone goal in the 1-0 win over Indy Eleven NPSL.
The Royals have technical skill all over the park, but especially in the middle, as holding midfielder Mike Derezic and more attacking-minded Admir Suljevic are both smart and poised. Former Purple Eagle Coletun Long returns to anchor Poe's back four, while former Erie man Ryan Lund is on the roster but is yet to appear.
Anthony Flowers has protected the goal in AFC Cleveland's first three matches, but when he's available, Ohio State keeper Alex Ivanov is first-choice.
As a whole, FC Buffalo should boast an sizeable advantage athletically, although the home side will counter with outstanding continuity and perhaps more guile.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who isn't going to Cleveland, at firstname.lastname@example.org