Needing a win to keep their playoff hopes alive, FC Buffalo came mighty close to three points after a stirring comeback, but ultimately fell short, drawing Erie, 3-3, on Saturday night at Gannon University. With the result, FC Buffalo have been mathematically eliminated from the playoff picture with one game to go.
"Obviously being from Buffalo we know what it's like to not be in playoff contention," said Wolves captain Chris Walter. "That sucks big time -- it sucks because we have a good group and we're not ready for our season to be done. We want to play a couple more games together and I think we had the team to do it, but unfortunately tonight luck wasn't on our side."
To reach the playoffs for the first time since 2013, the Wolves needed to win Saturday in Erie and next Friday at home against Indy Eleven NPSL; last Sunday's loss to Rochester significantly reduced the side's margin for error.
Trailing 3-1 in the 72nd minute, FC Buffalo would massacre Erie until the final whistle. Substitute Regan Steele was bright off the bench, smashing a 25-yard strike into the upper 90 of the Commodores' net in the 76th minute, before Kendell McFayden nodded home a Chris Walter cross just six minutes later.
Brendan Murphy's team sustained the onslaught over the final 15 minutes -- including seven of stoppage -- but couldn't find the go-ahead goal. Scrambles deep in Erie's 18-yard box and a few dangerous services were the best the Wolves could muster during that final stretch, but the Commodores managed to avoid calamity with timely blocks or clearances.
"Going down 3-1, I think we looked inside ourselves and said, 'Look, we've got to at least try and fight to get the result,' and we were almost there," Walter said, as many of his teammates looked despondent on the bench well after the final whistle. "We dug deep and the boys did fight for the last half hour of that game."
"We went out fighting, that's for sure," Murphy added. "And I'm proud of that. But we're disappointed. The whole goal was playoffs, we were right there with 90 minutes to play and you're in the playoffs, and you tie the game, so it's disappointing for the fans, the ownership group, for us, and all the work that we put in, all the players and the work they put in -- they're all feeling it. We'll let this one sink in and get back to work."
PLAYOFF DROUGHT: FC Buffalo have now missed the playoffs for three consecutive seasons after qualifying for the first time in club history in Murphy's first year. Since becoming FC Buffalo in 2010, the Wolves have yet to win a playoff game, falling to John Melody's Erie Admirals, 5-2, in their lone appearance.
The Wolves are not far off from being a regular postseason participant, but the side will rue several results, especially the two one-goal losses to first-year side Rochester and Sunday's draw against Erie, a team they'd beaten rather soundly with 10 men on May 27.
SECOND-HALF CANNONS: Although Erie conceded first on Ricardo da Silva's own goal in the 40th minute, the Commodores came out with a purpose in the second half, scoring inside the first five minutes and tacking on two more before a half hour had elapsed.
"[Erie] counterattacked very well, they had good possession in and around our box, they had great services from the width with guys making hard near-post runs," Murphy said of Erie's halftime adjustments. "They got us twice on those type of things."
In the 48th minute, FC Buffalo's back four was caught pressing high, allowing Hamza Mourchid to find space behind FC Buffalo's defense. Although Wolves center back Keith Traut managed to cut off an angle for a shot or cross, Mourchid doubled back toward the top of his own 18, bending in a cross that 5'7 Luca Campos headed past Nick Jeffs.
The Commodores' prettiest goal came in the 65th minute, as Campos created enough separation down the right side to serve a low, driven cross, which Erie forward Billy Colton met in-stride at the near post and cranked first-time past Jeffs before the keeper could react.
With the Wolves' back four at sixes and sevens, Melody's squad added another two minutes later, as Eric Campbell loped down the right side of the box and slid a square ball to an unmarked Ashley Phillips for a tap-in.
WOLVES COME OUT FLAT AGAIN: FC Buffalo essentially lost the Rochester road game because of a sleepy first 20 minutes in which they gave up two goals, and Sunday, the Wolves looked reluctant to assert themselves as the better team out of the game. Erie's physicality gave them an edge in the midfield early, refusing to allow the Wolves' midfield to string passes together or become comfortable.
After da Silva's awkward own goal, FC Buffalo's Romario Guscott sprinted in behind Erie's defense for a one-vs.-one with Ryan Arvin, but he was too cute with his finish, bending his right-footed shot wide of the right post. With just a 1-0 advantage at the break, the Wolves were vulnerable coming out of halftime.
"It has to do with mentality," captain Chris Walter said about the unconvincing first 45 minutes. "The game in itself can be tough on the mind and emotions. We knew how big this game was, and I think that may have actually hurt us in a way. I think nerves played a part into it. That's the hole we dig ourselves in."
WHAT'S NEXT: Although the game is meaningless in the Midwest Region Great Lakes East Conference standings, FC Buffalo plays its final home game of the year, against Indy Eleven NPSL, at 7 p.m. July 8 at Robert E. Rich All High Stadium. The visitors have already clinched a playoff spot.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who predictably went hard at Chick-Fil-A, at firstname.lastname@example.org