The 2017 Buffalo & District Soccer League (BDSL) premier division regular season went roughly as planned - with the top four separating themselves from the pack - then the playoffs went haywire.
No. 5 seed Soho careened to the finals by nipping Clarence and squashing the top-seeded Sharpshooters, then gave champion BSC Raiders all they could handle in an eventual 4-3 loss. Rocky Palmeiro's Raiders have now conquered the league three of the past four years, accumulating a regular-season record of 30-7-7.
The 2018 BDSL season, which begins May 6 across Western New York, points toward a bit more parity in the premier table. Mid-table sides like Celtic United and Lackawanna FCY, the result of a merger between Yemen Elite and FC Yemen, should threaten the top four, while sturdy Wolfpack, fiery Southtowns and young bucks Williamsville Willies - all of whom were just promoted from championship - shouldn't get trampled.
[Related: Beloved referee remains hopeful despite lymphoma diagnosis]
Here's what we predict for each premier division side for the 2018 campaign:
No. 12: Wolfpack
2017 record: 6-1-4 in championship, second place. Won title over Southtowns.
Major additions: Francesco Cardillo (Panthers), Rick Fleck (BSC International), Stephen Acheampong (Bantu).
Major losses: Braden Scales, Nick Cavalieri (mid-season).
Overview: The transition from championship to premier is notoriously tough, and it's tougher when your best player - Braden Scales, in Wolfpack's case - moves away. The former University at Buffalo star was the team's heart and soul in their run to promotion, which means the onus falls on an albeit-very-good defense to fluster superior sides.
Brian Terpin, Chris Moonan, Zach Griffey and Jason Curry are all solid, smart defenders in front of Andrew Renkas, whose point-blank save in the dying moments of the semifinal vs. the Williamsville Willies secured promotion to premier.
Strengths: Adding Cardillo, an assistant coach at Buffalo State, should help off-set Scales' departure. His brand of toughness and low center of gravity make him a menace in the middle of the park, and his strengths complement those of Anthony Appiani, likely one of his partners in center midfield.
Nick Cavalieri, Caleb Richards, Scott Berardi, Eric Russell, Matt McCoy, Kyle Weaver and newcomer Acheampong are all capable of scoring goals, but it's the team's discipline and defense - stretching from the midfield back - that gives it a chance to stay in premier.
Worries: This is not the best year to be promoted into premier. The division is likely better than ever before, and Wolfpack are the unfortunate newcomers that face an uphill climb. The loss of Scales is huge, and Cavalieri's expected mid-season departure almost as big. In the end, the promoted side will be tough to break down, but against the top-half of the division, a draw would be a dream.
BN Soccer likes: Richards has the size-speed combination that makes him a menace on the wing. He'll surprise some teams in premier.
[Read last season's premier division preview to see how wrong we were!]
No. 11: East Aurora FC
2017 record: 5-5-1, sixth place; lost in first round to BSC Raiders.
Major additions: David Bilek, Jack Bean, Salvatore Curella.
Major losses: Shane Healy, Michael Jackson, James Ritchie.
Overview: After three straight years of promotion, EA FC did more than just stay afloat in the top flight - the blue-and-white made the playoffs and challenged the eventual champions in the quarterfinals. So, why would they be in danger of relegation this year? It's complicated.
The ideal center back pairing of Shane Healy and Michael Jackson missed almost all of last season, so their losses for '18 aren't giant. It's still surprising, though, that East Aurora didn't bring in defensive reinforcements; they lost Noah Thompson, too.
After a terrific senior campaign at SUNY Geneseo - which included a SUNYAC Tournament upset of Buffalo State - forward Joe Vucic remains one of the top strikers in the BDSL. There's talented youth here, too, as All-WNY Player of the Year Bryce Schiltz represented FC Buffalo in an exhibition against Daemen, which gives you an idea how highly thought after he is.
His FC Buffalo Academy teammate, productive Grand Island forward David Bilek, joins him on the roster.
Strengths: EAFC will be tough - manager Ryan Keller demands it. Like Keller, Aaron Kosowski, Colin Shoemaker, Kyle Kleckner and Barry Hunt epitomize the style that propelled the side rapidly through the BDSL ranks. Vucic's proficiency as a one-man strike force allows East Aurora to pack the midfield with bodies, an advantage against sides emphasizing possession. Steve Pufpaff is one of the area's top young goalkeepers.
Worries: As mentioned earlier, the back four is a worry, and incoming Penn State Behrend goalkeeper Pufpaff will be called upon regularly to bail out his teammates. How effective will Parker Healy be after missing almost his entire senior campaign at Fredonia? What kind of impact will additions such as Salvatore Curella, brothers Josh and Austin Meier, Marc Farrell, Zack Keller and Jake Reed have? We do not know.
BN Soccer likes: If Parker Healy isn't available often, Vinny Chimento is capable of stepping into an attacking midfield role. The former Fredonia Blue Devil spreads the ball around wisely and rarely gets caught in possession. He may not score a bounty of goals, but his impact isn't best reflected by statistics.
No. 10: Southtowns FPFC
2017 record: 7-2-2 in championship, first place. Lost to Wolfpack, 1-0, in the final.
Major additions: Luis "Beto" Hernandez, Shane Greene, Matt Burke, Mike Taylor, Matt Wilson, Levi Bojang.
Major losses: Stephen Galante, James Quinn (Sharpshooters), Rob Booker, Alejandro Muniz, Pat Doherty.
Overview: After a demoralizing playoff loss to underdog East Aurora in 2016, Southtowns successfully achieved promotion from championship in 2017 with the same recipe: hard work, ball-winning and opportunistic finishing. Scott MacLean's squad has a similar look for their first year in premier; they'll scrape and claw their way to avoid relegation, even if East Aurora might be an ounce more talented.
Strengths: Necessitated by their move to the top tier, Southtowns became a younger and faster team during the offseason. The arrivals of Matt Burke, Levi Bojang and Matt Wilson - all teammates of incumbent forward Kabura Elias at Medaille - point in that direction, while newcomer Luis "Beto" Hernandez will surprise a lot of people with his gifts in the central midfield; he does almost everything well.
Worries: Who's going to score? That's the chief question facing Southtowns, as several players have chipped in during past seasons, but they're ultimately lacking a feared striker. Fiery Phil Pinzone, one of the team's vocal leaders, tied Will Smith - whose work-rate and peskiness are off the charts - last year with five tallies each.
BN Soccer likes: The toughness of Southtowns' unsung starters - such as Colin Morrissey, Troy Weber, Andrew McDonagh, Steve Fox and Sean MacLean - is impressive.
No. 9: Queenston FC
2017 record: 3-5-3, eighth place. Missed playoffs.
Major additions: Marcus D'Aguiar (OP Alliance), Max Montante (Crusaders FC), Trey Buscaglia.
Major losses: Joe Farrell (Grand Island FC), Colin O'Keefe (BSC Raiders), Frank Cotroneo, Pat Eadie.
Overview: The Parliament are eager to prove they're not a side that annually finishes low-to-mid-table. Unfortunately, BN Soccer's predictions pin them in that exact area, as it's tough to argue Queenston improved over the offseason.
Goalkeeper John Netter remains the side's most valuable player, proving tough to solve year after year and starting the attack with his distribution. A defense with Dylan Duncan, Noah Rougeux, Greg Hoffman, Adam Winkworth, Eric Albrecht and prized winter addition Marcus D'Aguiar - with holding midfielder Steve Pusateri shielding them - will be a pain to break down, too.
Expect Queenston to play in plenty of low-scoring games, because other than Justin Sims and Mo Kassem, there's not a ton of life in the attack.
Strengths: The defense is deep and filthy. Seriously. Chemistry and organization should be a strength, too, two areas that are impossible to quantify. Sims - with a team-high six goals last year - is a cagey finisher, while fellow Sportsplex worker Netter makes tough saves look routine.
Worries: How much will Troy Brady be around this summer? The team looks much, much different if he's a regular part of the squad. Otherwise, the Parliament will have to trust youngsters such as Max Montante, Jake Westadt and Trey Buscaglia for contributions farther upfield.
BN Soccer likes: Joe Conjerti. The BDSL veteran isn't flashy - he's just solid and reliable. You can't have enough of those kind of players.
No. 8: Clarence Coyotes
2017 record: 6-2-3, fourth place. Lost to Soho in quarterfinals.
Major additions: Mo Channer (Blizzard SC), Bubba Ralyea, Joshua Barker, Junior Geegba.
Major losses: Ryan Schroen, Andrew Incho, Francesco Strangio, Derek Maier.
Overview: Whoa, those are some big losses, Clarence. Queenston could have been easily been placed ahead of the Coyotes in this prediction - it's close. Schroen's departure immediately knocks Clarence down a few spots, even if A.C. LaFlore's return softens the blow.
Strengths: Chris Berardi, Andrea Conte and Gary Boughton round out a midfield that can compete with the best of the BDSL. LaFlore is a top-three defender in the league, and there's enough athletic youngsters - Mo Channer, Sam Sutherland, Kenny May, Anthony Calarco, Andrew Peek and Charleston-bound Barker - to keep pace with faster foes. David Martinez, John Siefert and Len Previte keep the Coyotes organized (and hydrated) year after year.
Worries: On paper, the addition of physical specimen Channer looks like a phenomenal signing on paper, but we'll see how he fits in with Clarence. In theory, an attack with a plethora of offensive-minded midfielders (Berardi, Boughton, Conte) would benefit from a big, strong target forward, so maybe it works out.
If Channer flops, then Geegba - who had a tough time featuring in BUSS' loaded lineup - could be the answer. The team's struggles in Sportsplex's top division this winter might be another reason for concern, but outdoor is a different beast.
BN Soccer likes: I think we put two-way midfielder J.J. Hughes here every year, so for 2018 we'll appreciate Brendan Brody, the powerful defender with nimble feet.
No. 7: Williamsville Willies
2017 record: 6-2-3, third in championship. Lost in semifinals to Wolfpack; earned promotion due to Yemen Elite-FC Yemen merger.
Major additions: Matt Casey (Celtic United), Andrew Spitznogle (Celtic United).
Major losses: Matt Keating.
Overview: Willies didn't waste much time reaching premier, even if they were the beneficiaries of two premier teams merging. Why is the third-place team in championship predicted to finish seventh in the top flight? Sure, it's a little ambitious, but the continuity, youth, speed and balance are all in place.
Jeffrey Bellinger and Justin Bonetto will again pace the offense, with a deep midfield of Ian Harris, Thomas Jackson, Yohan Andraud and Noah Bachwitz in support. Add in a healthy Jackson Retzer, Fredonia teammate Matt Casey and gifted Pat Mathiebe, and the Willies have an abundance of riches.
Strengths: Simply put, Williamsville's major strengths are their youth and fitness. There's not a player older than 25 on the squad, and the vast majority were teammates on Williamsville North at one point. Many of these players (I. Harris, Jackson, Bachwitz, Retzer, Casey, Noah Smith, Andrew Spitznogle and likely Bonetto) will play college soccer this fall, so they have a bit more incentive to keep their form and elevate their game.
Worries: Youth can be a downfall, too. More experienced premier teams will be better at protecting leads and managing the game, which might lead to a few narrow losses for the division's newcomers. It's also worth debating if Bellinger and Bonetto will be as productive against better defenses, even if the championship division last year was characterized by its defense-first, grind-it-out style.
BN Soccer likes: Matt Casey's sheer physicality and mean streak will be a welcome addition to the Willies' defense. He stepped into the SUNY Fredonia starting XI as a freshman and looked comfortable - earning even more responsibility as a sophomore. Opposing forwards will think twice before going into a challenge with the Williamsville South alum.
No. 6: Soho FC
2017 record: 6-5, fifth place; lost in finals to BSC Raiders
Major additions: Asani Samuels, Al Franjoine (Panthers), Chris Griffiths (TriTown), George Tor (BUSS).
Major losses: Andy Larracuente, Andy Tiedt, Steve Butcher, Bobby Ross, Ryan Ross, Jake Montante.
Overview: Soho might be the biggest question mark in premier. The losses are severe - especially Larracuente and Ross at center back - but the additions could be massive if Samuels attends regularly. Franjoine, a difference maker on now-defunct Panthers last season, brings toughness and a little nastiness, fitting snugly into the team ethos.
Strengths: If former Canisius College and Rochester Rhinos stalwart Samuels shows up and is engaged, he'll cover a lot of Soho's flaws. Pairing the 6'5 Jamaican striker with Ryan Mangano, who scored 10 goals last year, is lethal, and Pablo Ordonez's ability to serve from the left makes the two even more dangerous. Good luck marking that!
Worries: With little depth at the position, a lot of responsibility will be thrust upon center backs Dave Hogan and Josh Hall, two long-serving members of the side. If one or both of them misses substantial time, there will be problems. Former Clarence keeper Nate Konitzer bolted up from third division's Moby Ducks to give Soho another option in goal in addition to incumbent Bryan Staniszewski.
BN Soccer likes: Former professional indoor player Austin Tom isn't a picnic to play against. He's strong and doesn't hold back from tackles, which sometimes draws the ire of his opponents. When he's an under-control wrecking ball, though, he's a handful all over the field.
No. 5: Lackwanna FCY
2017 record: N/A, although Yemen Elite went 2-7-2 and FC Yemen were 2-4-4.
Major additions: Everyone!
Major losses: F Ali Adil, F Kerry Pryce, M Matt Owusu, M Ali Mohamed.
Overview: Typically, merging two sides can wreak a bit of havoc before ultimately benefiting the product. Players comfortable at a position on one squad may be forced to adapt, while individually talented pieces from each might simply not mix.
Fortunately for Lackawanna FCY, the fusion of Yemen Elite and FC Yemen, their players really never take a break from soccer. Whether it's competing in leagues at Sahlen's Sports Park or renting weekly field time there, the Yemen community embraces soccer as a part of life, and that shows in the team's preparedness.
Strengths: Continuity shouldn't be a problem for the managerial combo of Taha Omar and Faress Saleh, as many members of LFCY just competed in the Werner Fricker Open Cup and have trained and scrimmage regularly for more than a month. Leaders abound on the field, too, as Mateo Escobar, Peter Marlette and Abdulqawi Mohamed will hold teammates accountable and demand consistency.
Worries: Pryce, a star of Yemen Elite's Tehel Cup run, leaves a void up front, but Kpainay should alleviate some of that concern. Ali Adil's ability to breakdown defenses with pace will be missed, though, leaving Ali Shawish and Kovan Menr as the side's best one-vs.-one threats. Other than tenacious Ahmad Adil and Kpainay, where's the toughness and physicality on this squad?
BN Soccer likes: Saleman Salim, a soon-to-be sophomore at Buffalo State, has the chance to be one of the best center backs in premier - if not this year, then sometime in the next handful. An astounding athlete who's bold in the air and recovers when beaten, the elder of the two Salim brothers is still improving at playing out of the back. Creative, technical Hussain Omar deserves credit, too.
No. 4: Amherst Sharpshooters
2017 record: 9-2, first place; lost in semifinals to Soho FC.
Major additions: F Ricky Martinez (Celtic Hoops), GK James Quinn (Southtowns FPFC), F Zack Schmidt (unattached).
Major losses: M Myles Taylor, GK Adam Durst, F Eric Brodfuehrer (in June).
Overview: Sharpshooters are plenty good enough to finish higher than fourth; Trevor Lawler's side should still advance to the postseason. But the red-and-white will find the path a little harder this year, especially when former Niagara University star Eric Brodfuehrer leaves in June. Missing out on Asani Samuels, long rumored to join Sharpshooters, hurts a lot, as does the departure of connector Myles Taylor.
Strengths: If they're healthy and in attendance at least most of the time, a team of Regan Steele, Andrew Crawford, Cody Rouse, Brandon Loncar, Jon Cary, Drew Braun, Brendan Lawler and so forth is a perennial favorite.
Bringing back Ricky Martinez after a year with Celtic Hoops was a wise move, providing pace and game-breaking ability up front, while Schmidt has returned to form after missing more than a year to injury.
Simply put, Crawford is a beast defensively, and once Graham Harris returns to health, there will be no messing around with Sharpshooters' center backs. If Canisius College outside back Bjarki Benediktsson joins the fray late in the summer as suspected, there might not be a better back line in league history.
Worries: It's not really that Sharpshooters have declined, it's more that their competition has all improved - the top teams remain as strong as ever, while the lower table teams should put up more resistance than past foes.
How the side responds to Brodfuehrer's departure will be telling, while the transition in goal from Adam Durst to James Quinn is another storyline worth watching. How is Sharpshooters' depth? What about their collective pace? Time will tell.
BN Soccer likes: Cary. The former Golden Griffin, rumored to join his brother on Celtic United, reversed course back to Sharpshooters not long ago. "Bam" represents a versatile chess piece for Lawler to use anywhere on the field, especially advantageous on days when Amherst is short on numbers.
No. 3: Celtic United
2017 record: 4-5-2, seventh place. Missed playoffs.
Major additions: SO MANY (see overview section).
Major losses: Bucky Benyehuda, Matt Casey, Matt Belardi (Chupacabras), Vinny DiVirgilio, Luke Loecher.
Overview: United are the BDSL's most improved team - no question. The top squad representing the Celtic organization benefited from Roos' relegation, poaching three of their best in Sam Greco, Joshua Beshaw and Alex Reid.
The offseason moves didn't end there, though, as Medaille center midfielder Mitchell Ali - the Mavs' metronome and a leader - fills the void (and then some) left by departed Bucky Benyehuda.
Toss in Myles Taylor and recent Canisius grads Mitch Cancilla and Francesco Strangio, and you've got a remade roster loaded with youth, high-level experience, spunk and attacking verve. It's a breath of fresh air for holdovers such as Sammy Wasson, Chris Barbolini, Blade Sorrentino, Mitch Skrabacz, Ian Brown and Patrick Schulz.
Strengths: On paper, United should have little trouble cracking the league's top four for the first time since 2013. As you'll see in the "Worries" section, there are extenuating circumstances, but all of the elements are there: finishers (Schulz, Greco, Reid, Beshaw, Strangio), creators (Wasson, Taylor), bulldozers (Ali, Theuerkauf, Cancilla), blue-collar contributors (Sorrentino, Skrabacz, Galanti) and quality defenders (Barbolini, Yarussi, Brown).
Worries: Chemistry and attendance, with the latter seemingly always a worry with Celtic United. Hey, people have busy summers! The signings of Wasson and Ali to FC Buffalo might force them to miss BDSL games, which blunts the team's star power in midfield a bit.
BN Soccer likes: Ali. If you didn't catch a Medaille men's game last game, take in a Celtic United contest this summer. Like Niklas Ringdahl Bohlin over at Daemen, Ali is an NCAA Division I-caliber player at a non-D1 level.
No. 2: BUSS
2017 record: 8-1-1, second place. Lost to BSC Raiders in wild semifinal affair.
Major additions: Tim Clark, Wes Rider, Abdullahi Hussein, Andre Torrico, Mateo May, Jason Martin.
Major losses: Drew Colosimo, Yony Guardado, Junior Geegba.
Overview: While BUSS' stacked offense struck fear in opponents before last season, it was the team's defense that flourished. The Calvaneso-Suazo manager duo formed a team that conceded just six goals in the regular season, with "Polo" transitioning seamlessly to center back, Josh Hammer taking another step in his development, and Prince SaySay and Richie Williams remaining steady.
Canisius College outside back Wes Rider, who's also capable in the midfield, was one of the area's most improved players over the last year; getting thrown into the fire in Division I has that effect. It's hard to tell where he'll fit in with BUSS, but his versatility is a plus.
Strengths: The BUSS attack is scary-good: Kyle Clifford, Hunter Walsh, Mo Hussein, Hunter Sherman (suspended for first two games) and Abdi Sabtow return as the major forces. Toss in a trio of young attackers - Mateo May (Newfane), Abdullahi Hussein (I-Prep) and Jason Martin (Lancaster) - and there's more depth and pace.
The orange-clad squad unnerves its opponents with high pressure in all three zones, wearing down and frustrating foes. Maybe their opponents - which became collectively younger - will adjust better to this style in 2018, but we'll have to see it to believe it.
Worries: The Tehel Cup runners-up have added several FC Buffalo Academy players - where BUSS veteran Ian Martin coaches - which might be trouble in terms of availability. Other than a transition in goal from Colosimo to former Dutch keeper Tim Clark, it's hard to pinpoint an area that could cause BUSS to stumble. If anything, it's the potentially haunting 2017 semifinal loss in which BUSS let an early 3-0 lead slip away to Raiders in an affair marred by several red cards.
BN Soccer likes: Musse showed his class in his appearance as a substitute for BSC Raiders in their U.S. Amateur Cup quarterfinal match. He slows the game down, keeps possession silkily and plays his position responsibly. He has a little Luka Modric in him (although not much because let's face it, Modric is one of the world's best midfielders in possession).
No. 1: BSC Raiders
2017 record: 7-2-2, third place. Won the title over Soho.
Major additions: Bobby Ross (Soho), Marc Stencel, Jeremy Figler, Colin O'Keefe (Queenston).
Major losses: Ryan Arvin, Kwadwo Asante, Chris Walter.
Overview: Perhaps because of their success, Raiders are one of the more disliked teams in the BDSL, serving as a target or standard for other contenders. Rocky Palmeiro's team doesn't always play pretty soccer, but they've got aces in FC Buffalo striker Kendell McFayden, starting keeper Jeremy Figler and Wolves assistant coach Casey Derkacz.
Strengths: With three championships in four seasons, Raiders definitely know how to win. For the first time, the defending champs played preseason soccer, representing the BDSL in the U.S. Amateur Cup, beating TFC Gunners on the road before falling to a strong FC Motown.
If you peek at the Sahlen's 11-vs.-11 standings, Raiders' 13-0 record - with a Bills-Raiders-ian goal differential of 51-3 - is almost silly. By all indications, it looks like they're ready to repeat.
Worries: Raiders' attendance in 2017 was far better than the previous campaign, which undoubtedly aided their return to glory. The availability of their FC Buffalo connections - as well as Matt Waddington's new role as WNY Flash head coach - might leave them shorthanded some days, but having two keepers on the roster will alleviate a major problem from previous seasons.
Rudy Pikuzinski III's two-game suspension and Chris Walter's severe injury could hamper the side significantly more than we anticipate.
BN Soccer likes: Kyle Rodgers. The former UB and FC Buffalo defender is a competitor and ball-winner supreme. He's invaluable to BSC Raiders.
*Related: Look back at 2017's Championship Sunday for five BDSL divisions.