BDSL premier division preview 2017 - The Buffalo News
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BDSL premier division preview 2017

The Buffalo & District Soccer League's premier division kicks off the 2017 campaign with only four games on May 7, with two other matches canceled due to flooded fields.

The local amateur men's league's top tier will be arguably its strongest and deepest ever, with five teams entering the season as potential title winners. Follow along on Twitter as @OfficialBDSL and @BDSLRumors keep social media users up to date on the league's happenings.

Here is BN Soccer's annual premier division preview and predicted finish:

12) BUFFALO BANTU [newly promoted]

2016 record: 7-1-3 in championship, second place, lost in finals

Major losses: Mohamed Musse (BUSS), Mo Hussein (BUSS), Hassan Abdi Sabtow (BUSS), Zein Abdulaziz, Prince Saysay (BUSS)

Major additions: George Yapa (SPAL), Jeff Sekyere (BUSS), Andrew Brobbey (Lakeside)

Overview: After BUSS poached Bantu's three best players during the offseason, the outlook seems bleak for the promoted side. Manager Jama Ali did his best to patch together a competitive roster - which does tout a few savvy additions - but the squad depth and overall talent level will not be enough to keep Bantu in the top flight.

Strengths: Bantu's 2016 calling card was its team speed and relentless forays forward - there's a reason they were co-leaders in goals in the championship division. Yapa and Brobbey are two additions that fit that mold, while Adan Mukumbira and Omar Sundi are quality pieces that return to the side. Expect those four, plus enigmatic Yakub Mohamed, to shoulder much of the scoring burden this summer.

Weaknesses: There are questions at literally every position, but the concerns begin in goal, where Jason Kuczmanski will not return and untested Mohamed Toure likely takes the reins.

Sekyere and incumbent center back Peter Schmidt will constantly be under fire from opposing attacks, and defensive help arriving from the midfield seems rather unlikely. It's not impossible to think that a Raiders or Sharpshooters can bag 10 goals on Bantu.

Standout player: Brobbey. The attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward returns to the premier division, where he played with Yemen Elite in 2015, and he proved to be a productive force in his one year down a level, bagging a team-high eight goals with now-defunct Lakeside.

Unheralded player: Mukumbira. It's easy to gravitate toward fiery players who demand quality from those around them, and although the Grover Cleveland alum might seem a little out of control at times, his passion could be crucial to Bantu shockingly avoiding relegation.

Rising youngster: Aweso Noor. The D'Youville outside back is only 20, and he's a gifted athlete with improving soccer skill. If anything, playing against premier competition should sharpen him for the fall.

Did you know?: Noor and Rick Sweeney made the biggest jump possible in the BDSL - going from third-division squads in 2016 to the premier level in the following year. It will probably take at least half of a season to adjust to the jump in game speed and competition level.

Team Twitter: @Buffalobantufc

*****

11) FC YEMEN

2016 record: 3-6-2, ninth place, missed playoffs

Major losses: Otmane Boussag (Gunners), Abdul Alshaebi

Major additions: Saleman Salim (BUSS), Abdi Salim, Abdelraouf Mohamed (Yemen Elite), Jabreel Almontaser (FC Yemen II)

Overview: Due to Rogue FC's free-fall and eventual folding, FC Yemen dodged relegation in 2016 and will again face an uphill battle this summer. There's no question that FCY's offseason moves have made them better - especially in the back - but success hinges partly on Nageeb Ali's availability, as the striker missed most of last season after potting 18 goals the year prior, in championship.

Unless they face attendance issues, don't expect FCY to get blown out often, but plenty of one or two-goal losses are in the cards.

Strengths: The core of this team is good, if not great. The central midfield partnership of Abdulqawi and Majed Mohamed is dynamic - they're the heartbeat of the squad.

Saleman Salim, who played as a winger for BUSS, will likely play center back for FC Yemen - his position at Global Premier Soccer and presumably in college. He and younger brother Abdi Salim are two of the most promising youngsters in the division. If Nageeb Ali is a fixture in the side this year, watch out for his pairing with speedy striker Ali Shawish.

Weaknesses: Through no fault of their own, the standard - and depth of talent - in premier is remarkably high, so even a collection of solid players doesn't ensure safety from relegation.

Will FC Yemen be good enough on the flanks? For a team that had some internal turmoil last year, what will chemistry be like a year later? Sammy Albakri was a competent goalkeeper in championship, but premier strikers are a different beast.

Standout player: Abdulqawi Mohamed. Eight goals and 15 assists in 2015 championship drooped to four goals and five assists in 2016 premier, but AQ still paced FC Yemen in points, and the team revolves around him. Quickness and vision are his strengths, and he's tougher to knock off the ball than you'd think.

Unheralded player: Majed Mohamed. Toiling in the shadows is AQ's midfield partner, Majed, who's an absolute bulldog, covering a Kante-esque amount of ground and causing general chaos wherever he goes. He's as fun to watch as he is useful to Taha Omar's squad.

Rising youngster: Abdi Salim. The case could be made for either Salim brother, but 17-year-old Abdi is the second-youngest player in premier (mere days older than his teammate, Shokey Albaneh) and likely won't be too far off the level.

Did you know?: Forward Jomar Rodriguez is a finalist for "Best Hair" in the BDSL.

Team Twitter: @FCYemen

10 impact youngsters added to BDSL premier, championship

*****

10) ROOS FC

2016 record: 3-5-3, seventh place, missed playoffs

Major losses: None

Major additions: Josh Beshaw (health), Brett Stern (eligible after Empire DA season), Ben Sivitilli (Rogue FC)

Overview: Facing the threat of relegation late in the 2016 campaign, Roos went undefeated in their last four, notching three wins in that span. While there's no case to be made for momentum from season to season, Roos' continuity is a plus, and the three additions listed above should make noise in different ways.

Strengths: The attacking triumvirate of Alex Reid, Sam Greco and Josh Beshaw will be scary-good if they can stay healthy, and adding Stern's quality into the mix will only help. Mike Skrzypczyk (Geneseo) roams the middle of the field, proving tough in the tackle and solid in every facet.

Weaknesses: Roos' worries will mainly be in the defensive third, with center back Kyle Ernst and goalkeeper Greg Slabyk reaching the twilight of their careers in premier. Will Garrett Rehner be fit? Will Zack Thomas thrive in a full season with Roos? What role players will step up?

Standout player: Reid. The Daemen track and soccer stalwart might be the fastest player in the BDSL. His balanced eight goals and six assists in last year's campaign reveals a selfless streak, and his partnership with high school teammate Sam Greco - who just as easily could be the player commended here - is enjoyable to watch.

Unheralded player: At 37, Richie Gordon keeps on chugging. His fitness, technical ability and willingness to strike from distance make him an important peripheral piece for Roos.

Rising youngster: Stern. The Newfane soon-to-be graduate signed to play at Duquesne in the fall, and while he's not a known name in Buffalo soccer circles due to his club tenure at the Empire Development Academy in Rochester, he's a menacing attacker with a terrific work rate. Honorable mention to Newfane junior Trevor Moreland.

Did you know?: Nearly 40 percent of the roster has a last name beginning with the letter "s."

Team Twitter: @RoosFC

*****

9) EAST AURORA FC [newly promoted]

2016 record: 6-4-1 in championship, fifth place, won title

Major losses: Myles Taylor (Sharpshooters)

Major additions: Ty Bentham, Kyle Kleckner (Rogue), Bryce Schiltz

Overview: What a remarkable story it would be if East Aurora, promoted each year after starting in second division in 2014, won the premier title this summer. Don't expect it to happen.

EAFC showed holes in their four-loss championship campaign but surged at the right time, as striker Joe Vucic went bonkers over the season's final stretch. Boding in their favor is a team-wide self-confidence that borders on arrogance - there's a prevailing sense that the team believes it can and should win every match. (That tends to get under the skin of opponents.)

Strengths: They're balanced and, for the most part, young. Ryan Keller, James Ritchie and Parker Healy - who all thrived at Fredonia - are the key cogs in the attack, while Vucic's relentless pressure and absurd hot streaks can unnerve defenses.

Fredonia goalkeeper Ty Bentham was a massive add, turning a potential weakness into a strength. You won't find many center-back pairings more athletic than Shane Healy and Michael Jackson, too. Swiss Army knife Kyle Kleckner can play anywhere, but he might be best-suited as a No. 6 for EAFC.

Weaknesses: East Aurora's depth and attendance could be worrisome, particularly in the midfield and up front. Their weekend party habits could be overcome by superior talent in the lower divisions, but lackluster starts can be crippling in premier.

Time will tell if EA's trash talking and on-field antics will draw the ire of the rest of the division, too.

Standout player: Parker Healy. Limited last summer due to injury, the youngest of the three Healy brothers on the team will prepare for his final college season, which should be enough incentive to keep him in top form. Incredibly tough to knock off the ball and eager to break down defenses with dribbling, the Fredonia attacking midfielder is a handful to mark.

Unheralded player: Cole Beale. The son of East Aurora High School head coach Kevin Beale just wrapped up his college career at Daemen, and he's a versatile, complementary piece who can produce up front or drop back into the midfield.

Rising youngster: Schiltz. A junior at East Aurora now, Schiltz won't have the burden of high expectations in his first BDSL season, but ~30 minutes off the bench as a reserve forward could prove useful in his development.

Did you know?: Colin Shoemaker, who lives in New York City, is the premier player with the most distance to travel for games this year. That said, he's expected to make only a few.

Team Twitter: @eafcfc

*****

8) CELTIC UNITED

2016 record: 5-5-1, sixth place, lost to Raiders in quarterfinals

Major losses: Chris Berardi (Clarence), Shane Greene, Nick Smith, Kyle Wiatrowski (SoHo), Steve Carcaterro

Major additions: Anthony Yarussi, Bucky Benyehuda, Matt Belardi, Seth Snyder (Niagara FC)

Overview: United's deep run in Tehel Cup play - ending with a loss in the title game to Clarence - was icing on the cake of a solid league campaign, where they qualified for the postseason before getting smashed by Raiders.

Given the offseason turnover - especially the departure of five starters - United have a serious net loss of talent. Starting with four brutal matches - Queenston, BUSS, Raiders and Clarence - it's worth wondering if a slow start would affect attendance numbers in a potential fight to stay up.

Strengths: There are several tough, quality players on this side. Sammy Wasson, who's recovered from a litany of injuries, plays simply and intelligently, Patrick Schulz is a bull of a forward and Chris Barbolini is quietly a top five BDSL defender. Vinny DiVirgilio had a nice 2016 season as a bounce back from injury, while Ian Brown and Luke Loecher are above-average defenders.

Weaknesses: Carrying just 16 players on the roster is a real risk for United, but that's where they stand on the eve of the new season. Expect them to be aggressive in their adds over the first few weeks of the season, but the aforementioned string of opponents isn't one to tinker against. Losing Mercyhurst goalkeeper Nick Smith will hurt, too.

Standout player: Wasson. You might be able to count the times he turns the ball over on two hands this season.

Unheralded player: DiVirgilio. His return after a year away gave United a huge boost in the midfield.

Rising youngster: Just 18, Fredonia's Matt Belardi is the youngest player on the roster by nearly two years. The attack-minded midfielder offers pace and will do well if he's isolated on a wing.

Did you know?: Blade Sorrentino is an annual contender for Best First Name in the BDSL.

Team Twitter: @_CelticUnited

Celtic United's Sammy Wasson settles a ball against Queenston in 2016. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

7) YEMEN ELITE

2016 record: 4-3-4, fifth place, lost in first round of playoffs

Major losses: Adel Rahman, Ali Adil, Chris Griffiths (Tri-Town), Moe Kassem (Queenston), Koby Sapon-Amoah

Major additions: Daniel Barrie, Pete Marlette (BUSS), Matt Owusu (year off)

Overview: Manager Faress Saleh and Elite fought off a slow start - two points from four games - to protect their place in premier. Signature wins were in abundance, too, as YE defeated Sharpshooters and Clarence while drawing Raiders. 2017 should see a slight regression from Elite, as offseason adds of Barrie and Marlette could spark a mediocre offense, but the overall losses will be a lot to overcome.

Strengths: Elite are shaping up to be a well-rounded team with defined roles, and everything runs more smoothly with Mateo Escobar anchoring the midfield. Barrie, an England native, is a feisty, hard-working center forward who can finish, while Marlette - another former professional - can still be dynamic, even if his prime is a bit behind him.

Returnees Sam Kassem, Zach Schlei, Jon Etter and Max Chirwa are all competent starters, while the return of Ahmed Adil from injury gives Saleh a hard-nosed center back who's more responsible positionally than Sapon-Amoah.

Weaknesses: Moe Kassem was one of the BDSL's top players last year despite playing a relatively unfamiliar position at fullback. The athleticism of Sapon-Amoah, despite encouraging bizarre lopes forward, made up for a number of errors, and Rahman was perhaps Elite's most creative player.

Standout player: Escobar. A field general and coach-on-the-field type, the former University at Buffalo Bull commands respect and still produces, tying for the team lead with four goals last summer.

Unheralded player: Jenaro Akeh. The former BUSS player missed most of last season with a groin injury, but he's stayed healthy and had a strong run of form recently. When he doesn't try to do too much himself, the midfielder can be a difference-maker.

Rising youngster: Erie Community College backup goalkeeper Billy Hanford, a Clarence High School grad, will share duties in goal with Scott Augustine. Should he start, Hanford won't have the friendliest welcome to the BDSL, with matches against BSC Raiders and then BUSS on the docket.

Did you know?: Barrie played on the second teams for Wigan Athletic and Fulham in England.

Team Twitter: @YemenElite

Yemen Elite's Sami Kassem, in blue, dribbles past a Clarence defender. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

*****

6) QUEENSTON

2016 record: 3-6-2, eighth place, missed playoffs

Major losses: Ross Suitor (Niagara FC), Nick Dumond

Major additions: Moe Kassem (Yemen Elite), Colin O'Keefe (Youngstown), Adam Winkworth (Niagara FC), Isaiah Barrett (Niagara FC)

Overview: There were many times over the last few years where Suitor was Queenston's best player, through his versatility, composure and clutch production. After losing the terrific Miguel Rodrigues the year prior, it must be tough to stomach for the Parliament to lose their top player in consecutive seasons.

Fortunately, Queenston is equipped to make a jump in the standings with a strong list of additions, from pacy Kassem and O'Keefe to a solid, tall defender in Winkworth. Isaiah Barrett, who's expected to be added to the squad in the next 10 days, could be the team's wild card.

Strengths: Depth. The tension between having 18 strong players in a rotation or 12-14 who can find a rhythm in a match is actually a problem for Queenston, but they can compensate for absences like few other teams.

They have a nice mix of blossoming youngsters (Troy Brady, Frank Cotroneo), grizzled veterans (Joe Conjerti, Greg Hoffman), high-effort workhorses (O'Keefe, Noah Rougeux), a top-tier keeper in John Netter and all-league funny-guy Ramsey Abdulmalik.

Weaknesses: The Parliament underachieved and missed the playoffs last season, with salt rubbed into the wound by a season-ending loss to Roos. If anything, this team could use a little of the swagger and confidence that teams like BUSS and East Aurora have in spades. Plus, is there a vocal leader in this side?

Standout player: Netter. Arguably the top keeper in the BDSL, Netter offers a lethal combination of shot-stopping and distribution. His ability to spark counterattacks will be even more dangerous this year with Kassem and O'Keefe in the fold.

Unheralded player: Joe Farrell. The Grand Island alum might have a tough time cracking Canisius College's lineup, but he's a fixture in the midfield for Queenston. He might not make any of BDSL Rumors' preseason or postseason all-star teams, but he'll chip in a handful of goals and a few assists this season.

Rising youngster: O'Keefe. The 19-year-old Erie Community College Kat brings boundless energy and positional versatility. The Canisius High School grad might not stick out on the score sheet, but he'll impact the game in other ways.

Did you know?: Eric Albrecht has made the position shift from holding midfielder to outside back, where he'll play at Kenyon College in the fall.

Team Twitter: @QueenstonFC

*****

5) SOHO FC

2016 record: 8-2-1, second, lost premier title in penalty kicks

Major losses: Nick Szabo (Grand Island FC), Garrett Sengbusch (Celtic Hoops)

Major additions: Andrew Larracuente, Jaime Salcedo, Kyle Wiatrowski (Celtic United)

Overview: There's relatively little turnover for a team that came a whisker from hoisting the BDSL premier trophy last summer. Moreover, the three additions are all upgrades, with ex-FC Buffalo player Larracuente a calming presence for the back line, and Salcedo (Medaille) and Wiatrowski (Hobart) covering ample ground in the midfield.

Strengths: They're battle tested, tough and deeper than they were last year. Ryan Mangano and Andy Tiedt are two of the most accomplished strikers in the league, while Jake Rinow, Pablo Ordonez, Josh Hall, Bobby Ross and Austin Tom are strong, punishing starters.

Weaknesses: SoHo are now one of the oldest sides in premier, with the majority players at least a few years removed from college. Losing Szabo, who was brilliant in the 2016 final against Sharpshooters, is an underrated loss, while teams with pace will certainly trouble SoHo in the defensive third.

Standout player: Tiedt. When he's fit and motivated like he was last season, the former UB Bull is still an effective No. 9. Tiedt is a threat in the air, boasts a soft touch and buries his chances. You can't ask for much more.

Unheralded player: Dave Hogan. The 34-year-old has been a key cog in this team's defense as far back as anyone can remember, and he remains a sure bet to put in an honest shift, winning tackles and cutting out attacks.

Rising youngster: It's hard to classify anyone on this team as young in relation to the other premier rosters, but the honors fall to Wiatrowski, a lanky, active re-acquisition from Celtic United.

Did you know?: SoHo's 22 yellow cards were the most of any team in the BDSL premier division last year.

Team Twitter: @Soho_FC

SoHo FC, a branch of former Celtic players, wear No. 7s in honor of Chris Pepper. (via Soho FC)

*****

4) BUSS

2016 record: 3-6-2, 10th place, missed postseason

Major losses: Jeff Panik, Saleman Salim (FC Yemen), Sam Sutherland (Clarence), Pete Marlette (Yemen Elite), Miguel Rumbo, Mate Tarr (Quake), Richard Wilson, Cory Carter

Major additions: Hunter Walsh (Rogue), Mohamed Musse (Bantu), Mo Hussein (Bantu), Hassan Abdi Sabtow (Bantu), Junior Geegba, Hunter Sherman, Anthony Saysay, Drew Colosimo (Elmwood Saints), George Tor, Dan Tarbell (Crimson Fire), Yony Guardado, Adonis Pimienta-Penalver (Elmwood Saints)

Overview: BUSS co-managers Bobby Calvaneso and Polo Suazo essentially rebuilt their team, collecting a wealth of young, fleet-footed attackers. As they showed in their 5-0 Tehel Cup win over Niagara FC, BUSS's pace and quickness are impossible to match, and they'll run you into the ground with their depth.

It might be criminal to project BUSS fourth - they could easily leapfrog Clarence and/or Raiders - but much of the hype has yet to be backed up by BDSL results.

Strengths: Opposing defenses will be overwhelmed by BUSS's speed and tenacity; the pressure applied by their forwards will cause turnovers, while their counterattacks will be lethal. If you think continuity might be an issue, it won't - BUSS integrated many of these new faces in the competitive Thursday men's league at Sportsplex. There's no question BUSS have the ability to win the league in style.

Weaknesses: BUSS's undoing could be mental, and the responsibility falls on Calvaneso and Suazo to keep their younger mates - some with rather explosive tempers - even-keeled and booking-free. Playing time and touches could pose problems within a side so deep, and no one's sure how they'll handle adversity, like a red card, a bad call or a narrow loss.

Standout player: It's tough to choose one, but big striker Kyle Clifford sticks out from the throng of small, fast attackers. The former two-sport star at Daemen College struck for 10 goals last year, and it wouldn't be shocking if he topped that number in 2017.

Unheralded player: Suazo. "Polo" is an excellent recruiter and tidy player. He'll selflessly transition to center back this summer to make room for the offensive signings. Suazo's leadership will be crucial to BUSS's success.

Did you know?: In hockey-esque fashion, BUSS have players who wear 90 (Geegba), 99 (Sabtow) and 77 (Guardado).

Team Twitter: @BUSSBDSL

*****

3) BSC RAIDERS

2016 record: 7-1-3, third place, lost in semifinals to SoHo

Major losses: None

Major additions: Rudy Pikuzinski III, Pa Lu, Ryan Arvin (Sharpshooters), Evan Walsh (Rogue), Siang Hnin Lian

Overview: The two-time defending champions were humbled in 2016, falling in the premier semifinals in penalty kicks despite playing with only 10 men. Availability and commitment are the questions facing Rocky Palmeiro and the Raiders, although reinforcements have been brought in to try to secure another title. If Raiders have 15-18 players show up to every match, they're the favorites.

Strengths: Kendell McFayden, Chris Walter, Casey Derkacz, Matt Waddington, Rudy Pikuzinski III, Kwadwo Asante, Kyle Westerholt...the list of outstanding players doesn't seem to end. The rotation of Justin Figler and Arvin should shore up one of 2016's weak spots, while Walsh provides much-needed midfield depth.

Weaknesses: FC Buffalo duty remains a higher priority for McFayden, Walter, Derkacz and John Grabowski, who will all likely miss the clashes against Clarence June 25 and FC Yemen July 9. Poise can be an issue for Raiders when matches get heated, leading to whining and occasional berating of referees. It would be a minor shock if BSC didn't see at least one red card this summer.

Standout player: Pikuzinski's absence was noticeable last summer, as Raiders weren't as crisp in the middle of the park. The former Canisius College and Niagara United midfielder is silky with the ball, a clean distributor and a willing leader.

Unheralded player: Matt Grabowski. The outside midfielder works hard in both directions, minds his own business and is quietly an important piece in the Raiders machine.

Rising youngster: It's Lian, not Lu, who's adjusted better so far to Raiders. The International Prep defender is tenacious, smart and tends to get a leg on just about anything. His high school teammate is certainly more decorated, but time will tell how well Pa Lu adjusts to his new mates.

Did you know?: Raiders lead the BDSL in former professionals by a landslide - Pikuzinski, Waddington, McFayden, Ryan Walter and Mermigas were all paid once upon a time to play soccer.

Team Twitter: None

*****

2) CLARENCE YOTES

2016 record: 6-4-1, fourth place, lost to Sharpshooters in semifinals

Major losses: Matt Schroen, Aaron Zelko, Chris Cournan, Jordan Katz

Major additions: Chris Berardi (Celtic United), Francesco Strangio (Rogue), Sam Sutherland (BUSS), Clint Holcomb (Yemen Elite)

Overview: Clarence nudges past Raiders in the predictions largely because they're in form - the Yotes grabbed BDSL's first-ever win in regional cup match, defeating Hammers FC of Northern Virginia, 1-0, behind a J.J. Hughes goal. Expect manager David Martinez and the Yotes to be organized defensively, dangerous on the wings and at times dominant in the middle.

Strengths: Adding Chris Berardi to the mix made perfect sense - he's a Canisius College soccer alum, like many on this team - but he's going to pair with Gary Boughton to form an outstanding center-midfield duo. Ryan Schroen and A.C. LaFlore are already the best center-back partnership in the BDSL, so Clarence's spine is exceptional.

Weaknesses: Adding Strangio, Holcomb and Sutherland to the mix show that Martinez and the Yotes wanted more options at striker, as Tyler Hamill was a competitor and a pest last year, but was not the goalscorer many expected. Outside back could be a problem area, too.

Standout player: It's still Boughton. One of the top players ever to come out of the Southtowns, the former Rochester River Dog and Medaille College alum excels when dribbling at top speed, boasts deceptive footwork and possesses a coach's understanding of the game. Since he's also in charge of Empire United's WPSL squad, his availability might be a concern this year.

Unheralded player: J.J. Hughes. He's not flashy, but Hughes is strong on the ball and in the tackle, as well as wise in his positioning and passing. The former Canisius Griff isn't shy about joining the attack, either.

Rising youngster: Sutherland. Dubbing Clarence his 'dream' club on Twitter, Sutherland - who wrapped up his Red Devils high school career last fall - is a rangy, hard-working forward without an entitled mentality.

Did you know?: The Yotes have nine players who are either current or former Canisius Griffins.

Team Twitter: @ClarenceYote

The Clarence Yotes won the 2016 Tehel Cup. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

*****

1) AMHERST SHARPSHOOTERS

2016 record: 8-1-2, first place, won premier title in PKs

Major losses: Tom Fusillo (Rampart), Ricky Martinez (Celtic Hoops), Eric Steinmetz

Major additions: Cody Rouse (Southtowns), Andrew Crawford, Matt Campana, Myles Taylor (EA FC), Marcelo Moreira

Overview: The defending champions actually got better over the winter, bolstering their midfield with Rouse, Taylor and Campana, while adding Crawford to the league's best defense. With a target on their backs and four other contending clubs bearing down on them, Sharpshooters cannot waltz into matches and take three points for granted.

Strengths: Sharpshooters' defense is freakishly talented. Drew Braun, Graham Harris, Jon "Bam Bam" Cary and Crawford won't break down or gift goals very often, while Pat McCann, Zack Wood and R.J. Grampp lend useful depth. The usual attacking threats - Brandon Loncar, Eric Brodfuehrer, Regan Steele, Justin Hofschneider, Brendan and Trevor Lawler, and more - all return; they should find themselves in better spots with Rouse and Taylor pulling the strings from the midfield.

Weaknesses: With Lawler coming off an ACL tear, Hofschneider rebounding from a knee injury of his own, Martinez bolting for Hoops and Steele's availability in question due to club coaching, finding an in form No. 9 won't be easy as it seems. Missing out on former Rochester Rhinos striker Asani Samuels could come back to bite them.

Standout player: Rouse. The Sharpshooters' new center midfielder brings everything you'd want from the position - he covers acres of space, plays simply with his passes and doesn't force the issue going forward.

Unheralded player: Zack Schwartz. The former Williamsville South star won't fill up the score sheet in premier, but he's a gritty winger who makes subtle contributions both offensively and defensively. Don't expect Schwartz to get outworked.

Rising youngster: Crawford. Playing for a college that's made the NCAA Tournament the last two years is an impressive feat for Crawford, who played sparse minutes as a freshman before carving out a starting role as a sophomore.

Did you know?: Sharpshooters' first match of the season is against Clarence, who stomped on Amherst's dreams of a treble last season.

Team Twitter: @_Sharpshooters

Sharpshooters' Brandon Loncar possesses the ball in traffic. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

 

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