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Captain Walter steps up as FC Buffalo blank Fort Pitt

It's not an unspoken rule in soccer, but it's often the player fouled in the opposing 18-yard box is the one who takes the ensuing penalty kick.

When FC Buffalo's Akean Shackleford was tripped up in the Fort Pitt box in the fifth minute of Saturday's National Premier Soccer League match, many assumed the industrious Jamaican striker would try to convert the chance he created.

But up stepped the Wolves' fiery captain, Chris Walter, who sent Fort Pitt keeper Scott Rissler the wrong way and potted the eventual game-winner in a 2-0 win at All-High Stadium. The longest-serving FC Buffalo player was quick to hug Shackleford, though.

"I kind of felt bad because it was [Akean's] birthday," Walter said, a little sheepishly, "but I've been practicing [penalty kicks] in training, and I felt confident today, so I stepped up and took it."

The victory improves FC Buffalo's record to 2-3-2 - coincidentally identical to that of the Western New York Flash, the highest level women's team in Buffalo - and gives them eight total points with five regular-season games remaining.

Frank Butcher's squad now stands in fourth place, although AFC Cleveland are one point back with a game in hand. The top two teams in the Midwest Region Great Lakes East Conference advance to the regional playoffs.

Erie (11 points through five games), Dayton (17 points through nine games) and Rochester (14 points through eight games) are top three sides in terms of points per game.

[Relive the action with BN Soccer's live tweets from the match]

BATTLING CONDITIONS: The early lead was a blessing for the home side, who didn't have to be the aggressor with the temperature in the 80s and the air thick.

"Weather played such a big impact on this game - I think we were able to outlast the other team," Butcher said after the match. "We were a little quicker at the start - we were faster, they were fouling left and right. We were able to get the PK to put us up early."

Armed with one of their deepest benches this year, the coaching staff of Butcher, Casey Derkacz and John Grabowski trusted their reserves to increase and protect the lead.

FC Buffalo swapped strikers after halftime, as Shackleford was forced to call it a day due to cramps. In the 50th minute - an estimate since the power had gone out at All-High - substitute forward Julien Dragomir made a sharp diagonal run inside his defender and latched on to a well-timed cross from Jake Cooper.

The Romanian, who just wrapped up his college career at Montana State University-Billings, nodded the ball expertly into the side netting of the left post, giving the Wolves some much needed breathing room.

"Just a brilliant ball and a great finish," Butcher said succinctly.

REBOUNDING FROM WEDNESDAY: The lowest point of FC Buffalo's season came last Wednesday, when the Wolves lost, 2-1, to Syracuse FC after trouncing the same side 5-1 at home just three days prior.

"The game on Wednesday was huge for us, and we kind of felt like we let that one slip out of our hands," Walter recollected. "Today, in the locker room, we didn't do much talking - we just said, we know what this one means, so let's go out and show what it means."

Instead of punishing the squad for Wednesday's result, the response of the coaching staff and Walter was more forgiving, and FC Buffalo responded with a commanding three points at home.

"The biggest thing was to try to keep the boys positive," Walter said. "We had a fun training session the other day - then we had Friday off, which was good - but Thursday we played some soccer tennis and kept the spirits high."

Butcher and the rest of the staff tried to get the team to refocus.

"It could have been easy for us to fold," Butcher reflected. "We talked during the week about how we've been the better team in almost every game and just haven't gotten the results.

"We have to persevere through the next couple weeks, three strong weeks, and even though we're at the bottom of the table, it's not out of the possibility that - since we know we can beat those teams - we can easily climb up if we believe in it."

Jamaican striker Akean Shackleford has been strong in two straight home matches. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News file photo)

WOLVES' STANDOUTS: Though Walter earned BN Soccer's Man of the Match honors, several other FC Buffalo players put in effective shifts.

Although he contributed only 45 minutes, Shackleford was a thorn in Fort Pitt's side throughout the first half, wreaking havoc with the ball and through his pressure defensively despite playing on an island up front.

FC Buffalo's three central midfielders - all holding players, by nature - left the Jamaican on his own, especially as the half wore on, creating some alarming gaps. Shackleford's willingness to take on three defenders and then his patience to invite contact in the box early on was the turning point in the game.

Although it was a quieter night than usual on the flanks for Bayley Winkel, the winger opposite him - Isaiah Barrett - was a force along the touchline, playing with a confidence that was absent in May.

"At the beginning of the season, it took him a couple games to find his way, find his spot, but he's in a zone now, and he's doing much, much better than he did at the beginning of the year," Butcher said of Barrett.

The back four of Fox Slotemaker, Jordan Sinclair, Jon Cary and Zach Peterson preserved the clean sheet for goalkeeper Jeremy Figler.

While the defense kept its shape well, Fort Pitt's attacking trio of Andres Vega, Jesse Scheirer and Anthony Virgara did little to threaten all evening.

STARTING XIs

FC Buffalo (4-1-4-1): Jeremy Figler; Zach Peterson, Jordan Sinclair, Fox Slotemaker, Jon Cary; Chris Walter; Bayley Winkel, Jake Cooper, David Enstrom, Isaiah Barrett; Akean Shackleford. Subs used: Julien Dragomir, Austin Stout, Mack Roach, Gary Boughton, Cameron Emerson.

Fort Pitt (4-3-3): Scott Rissler; Tyler Chiste, Matthew McDyer, Zach Graziani, Cody West; Nick Kolarac, Fausto Ordenana, Renan Fuentes; Andres Vega, Jesse Scheirer, Anthony Virgara. Subs used: Edis Merzihic, Ibrahim Kouyate, Max Flick, Tulio Canineu, Pete Smerecky.

WHAT'S NEXT: The Wolves travel to Rochester on Friday to face the Lancers at 7:30 p.m. at Aquinas Institute. FC Buffalo are on the road again Sunday at Dayton before returning home June 30 to face the Erie Commodores.

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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