Akean Shackleford waited patiently for his chance.
Returning from Indian Hills Community College's graduation on the day of FC Buffalo's first game, the Jamaican striker was deployed as a substitute against Fort Pitt and the Erie Commodores, both losses for the Wolves that put them in "must-win" mode Sunday.
In his first start for the club since finishing 2017 with a team-high in goals, Shackleford took advantage of tremendous service from his teammates to score three times in a 10-minute span in FC Buffalo's 4-1 win over Syracuse FC in front of an estimated 500 fans at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium.
"Coach called me overnight and said, 'Hey, man, tomorrow's your night, you're gonna start,'" said Shackleford, who's transferring to D-1 Southern Methodist University this fall after two All-American years at the JUCO level. "[After] the first game, I promised the fans that the next home game is going to be all different. We promised and delivered."
"I'm a huge fan of Akean - I know he can score goals for days," added Bayley Winkel, who wore the armband Sunday and contributed a pretty free-kick assist to Shackleford. "As soon as we can figure out how he plays - and know we just have to get him the ball up top, and let him do his thing, things are going to go our way."
FC Buffalo improves to 1-2 on the season, rebounding in style from Saturday's debacle against Erie, in which the Wolves blew a 3-2 lead in the 88th minute to fall, 4-3. FCB remains at home against Cleveland SC at 7 p.m. June 1 at All-High ($8 at the gate).
"I wasn't sure how we'd come out," Wolves head coach Frank Butcher admitted. "We expended a ton of energy yesterday, but the guys dug deep and played a full 90 today, and worked hard. Hats off to them."
*1-0, FC Buffalo, 27': We've said it for years, but there's probably not a Buffalo-raised player who's superior to Sammy Wasson technically. The Clarence and Buffalo State alum deked a Syracuse defender smoothly, nipping in front of him to force the marker into a shirt pull at the edge of the 18-yard box.
Captain Winkel stood over the free kick and curled a driven cross to the top of the six-yard box - the ideal destination - and Shackleford was first to the ball to head it against the grain and inside Jake Leahy's near post.
"The first goal is what really breaks the ice," Shackleford said after the match. "Once you score the first goal, you feel relief and feel like you can go on and on and on."
*2-0, FC Buffalo, 32': Standing over a free kick on the right side, the left-footed Wasson took advantage of dubious marking by the Syracuse defense to find Shackleford's head atop the six again. The Jamaican forward redirected the cross on target, and the power was too much for Leahy to keep out, despite a touch.
*2-1, FC Buffalo, 35': Syracuse responded with the prettiest goal of the evening, the product of dogged work from winger Manny Chanelo. The Le Moyne alum's 30-yard sprint and pocket-picking of an FC Buffalo defender drew a free kick, which he played quickly to Nate Bourdeau just outside the half-circle of the 18-yard box.
With time on the ball, the Syracuse talisman dipped his shot over FC Buffalo Steven Casey - who was dueling with the sun - and under the crossbar. A fine finish, but pure brilliance from Chanelo.
*3-1, FC Buffalo, 38': From the same recruiting agency that brought Jack Donaldson and Johnny MacBeth to Buffalo, FCB's two newest Scottish imports - center back Euan Bauld and left back Lewis White - have been superb signings. White's left-footed serves and willingness to jump into the attack has paid dividends more than once, and these traits created the dangerous situation that led to the Wolves' third goal.
White's searching long ball forward sailed over the head of Syracuse's John Ricks and found Shackleford between the two center backs. While Shackleford's first touch was a little heavy, Leahy stumbled coming off his line, allowing the forward to round him with a touch and finish into the open net.
"The third one was the best goal," Shackleford described. "I took the first touch down, beat the goalkeeper and put it in the back of the net."
"Akean worked to get on the end of it, but the serves were excellent all day," added Butcher.
[Read: Shackleford's inspiring back story from humble beginnings]
*4-1, FC Buffalo, 44': Center midfielder Jake Cooper's awareness created the fourth goal, as he served a threatening ball behind the center backs again with Shackleford running on.
Sprinting outside his 18-yard box, Leahy beat Shackleford to the ball and headed down - straight to Bayley Winkel, who gave it a go from 30 yards toward the net Leahy had vacated. The Syracuse University goalkeeper instinctively raised his hand to deflect the shot - even though he was outside his box - resulting in a handball, a free kick for FC Buffalo and a caution to Leahy.
The soccer gods may have frowned upon Leahy for his choice, as Winkel's ensuing free kick was blocked at the second level, but it fell nicely to Isaiah Wilson, who couldn't have been given an easier finish.
Watch the goals, below, in WNY Media's Facebook Live stream of the match. (Credit to the commentators, too, who made a big jump in quality from game one to two).
Juggling the forwards
Facing the team's first back-to-back set of games since 2012, Butcher likely had a plan in place to balance the minutes of his forwards. It's an advantage to have McFayden, Shackleford and Wilson at his disposal, but finding the right partnership and keeping everyone happy can be a headache.
"Kenny did a great job the other day, and you don't want to take him out, but Akean's been waiting and came in a little late this year because of his graduation, so we went with some other guys," the second-year head coach explained. "But today Akean got his shot, and he took the most advantage of it that he could."
Largely ineffective in his two appearances as a reserve, Shackleford reaped the rewards of outstanding service; his strength-speed combination makes him a nightmare to cover, even in tight spaces on set pieces. Exuding a striker's confidence, Shackleford just demanded the ball.
"In practice, that's what I've been saying to the coaches," he said. "If you have two strikers up there that are tall and fast, why not get the ball to them? At the end of the day, the thing I probably have to work on is my work rate off the ball, but put me in front of goal and I'm going to deliver."
A different perspective on FCB's bounce-back
The easy narrative in explaining the difference between Saturday's meltdown and Sunday's offensive eruption would be FC Buffalo's resolve, the club's mental preparedness knowing that a loss to Syracuse would make securing a playoff spot extremely tough. That's not how the Wolves' captain saw it, though.
"It's not mindset; we all want to get up for games," said Winkel. "It's been like that the last three seasons - once we click, find we know how each other plays, things go well. I wish it would have happened sooner, but that's just what the NPSL is.
"It's less that we were up for this game, and didn't have the mindset other games, we've played well and had the right mindset, but now it's just starting to click. Everybody is getting together, and now it's working."
"This [win] just builds the confidence - the last two games I think we've worked well and just been unlucky on the results. I'm glad we got a win a little earlier this year, and hopefully we can keep it rolling with our confidence going up." - FC Buffalo head coach Frank Butcher.
FC Buffalo: Steven Casey; Lewis White, Euan Bauld, Robert Williamson, Chris Camilli; Bayley Winkel, Jake Cooper, Sammy Wasson, Austin Stout; Akean Shackleford, Isaiah Wilson. Subs used: Brett Stern, Hunter Walsh, Devonte Black, Mitchell Ali.
Syracuse FC: Jake Leahy, Adam Blackwell, Patrick Strauss, John Ricks, Miguel Tunas; Joe Falcone, Nate Bourdeau, Lukas Rubio, Manny Chanelo; Djimon Johnson; Haris Brkovic. Subs used: Jake Kohlbrenner, Abdi Maalo, Connor McKnight.