Scoreless draws don't have to be bereft of spectacular moments.
FC Buffalo goalkeeper Steven Casey made at least four terrific saves - two in each half - to preserve a point for the Wolves against Cleveland SC on Friday night at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium. FCB now stands at 1-2-1 (W-L-D) on the season, with a road match at 5 p.m. June 3 in Rochester on the horizon.
"It felt great to get the clean sheet; it was definitely a team effort," deflected Casey after the contest. "Cleveland is a solid physical team, and our team did a great job defensively."
"[Casey was] definitely man of the match," said FC Buffalo head coach Frank Butcher. "I thought we had better [scoring] chances, but they also had a few that they could have easily put away. He stood really tall today."
The 6-foot-6 Niagara University goalkeeper, starting his second straight match after beating Syracuse last Sunday, was tested first in the 21st minute. Antonio Manfut's corner kick bent nicely to hulking Cleveland SC striker Vinny Bell, who snapped his neck through a header; Casey's instincts were sharp, however, as he reacted instantly to push the ball aside.
The most jaw-dropping stop of the evening came six minutes from the break, with Casey robbing Bell yet again. After FC Buffalo's backs struggled to clear their 18-yard box, the ball fell to trailing Riley Grant, who struck a low shot toward goal.
Stationed a few yards in front of Casey, Bell smartly changed the ball's path against the grain with a subtle deflection - but the FC Buffalo keeper kicked his left leg out to deflect the ball out of play. The bang-bang deflection-to-kick-save would make Dominik Hasek proud.
— FC Buffalo (@FCBuffalo) June 2, 2018
Cleveland SC substitute Kotaro Umeda might toss and turn later tonight over Casey's heroics, as the midfielder saw two glorious chances go wanting in the second half.
In the 74th minute, Manfut wriggled free on the left wing and picked out Umeda's delayed run into the box. The Cleveland SC attacker struck a low shot toward goal - Casey bent low quickly to knock the shot away, then hustled to the rebound to block Umeda's second attempt from a bad angle.
Just two minutes from full time, Cleveland's Lewis Curran turned FC Buffalo's Lewis White on the right wing, slipped a low cross into the box - "dummy"-ed deceptively by Gianluca DiFranco - to Umeda, who smacked his low shot directly at Casey.
The FC Buffalo keeper was not fooled by DiFranco's trickery, which could have caught him out of position at his near post.
While FC Buffalo's back four deserves some credit for the clean sheet, center back Euan Bauld was effusive in his praise for the man of the match.
"Brilliant. Fantastic," said the Scot of his keeper. "He had so many great saves. Some saves in the first half were special, and some in the second half were magnificent."
FC Buffalo's chances
Although Butcher's side never beat Cleveland SC goalkeeper Mikal Outcalt, FC Buffalo's offense was far from lifeless.
The Wolves' best chance of the first half came as a result of striker Akean Shackleford's persistence. Using his strength to his advantage on the right wing, Shackleford found space to whip in a cross toward Isaiah Wilson at the back post; surprised by the pace of the service, the St. Bonaventure midfielder couldn't direct his header down and on frame.
Not long after subbing on, Sammy Wasson, dynamic in FC Buffalo's 4-1 thumping of Syracuse, nearly stunned Cleveland with a signature quick turn and left-footed strike that dinged the football crossbar connecting the field goal uprights, less than a foot above the soccer bar.
Wolves newcomer Keane McIvor, a college teammate of Bayley Winkel and Jake Cooper at Robert Morris, proved creative throughout the evening, but sparked two particularly prime chances in transition between the 70th and 80th minutes.
Running at speed toward the Cleveland center backs, McIvor recognized Akean Shackleford's diagonal run behind and played him in on goal. Seemingly out of nowhere, defender Coletun Long intervened to block the striker's attempt from 10 yards out.
Three minutes later, McIvor cut back sharply to his left on the right wing before curling a cross toward Winkel's run at the back post, just barely eluding his reach - the intended target came up gimpy on the play, hobbling on his already-injured ankle.
"I think the way we were attacking in the second half, I thought we were breaking them down and had the better fitness," said Butcher. "We were creating a lot of chances; I would have loved to come away with a win here.
"Cleveland is always a tough team so you can't be totally disappointed with the draw, but I think we left some chances out there."
Butcher is in a bit of a predicament with two starting-caliber goalkeepers on the roster, with Jeremy Figler, the opening-day starter, boasting professional experience and superior distribution to Casey. Given recent performances, however, Casey got the nod.
"The good thing about them is they're pretty selfless guys, and they're not worried either way [if they start or do not]," Butcher explained. "We had a conversation beforehand, Figs was completely on board, said Steve earned [the start] with the win last week."
A major storyline heading into FC Buffalo's season was how a rebuilt back line would fare - especially in the early going as an entirely unfamiliar unit grew together.
While it's been a struggle for right back Chris Camilli - who's been subbed off at halftime in two of the last three matches - Euan Bauld, Lewis White and Robert Williamson have appeared more confident and organized in the 180 minutes since conceding twice in stoppage time to lose to Erie, 4-3, on the road.
"It never happened to me ever in my life - I've never been in a game like that," Bauld said of his memories of the Erie match. "It was a massive experience - it was hard because that happened against Erie and then we had to get riled up to try to go against Syracuse, and it was like 30 degrees (Celsius).
"In Scotland we're not used to that; it was definitely a learning experience but helped motivate us to go again."
With FC Buffalo's tradition of strong center back play - from Mbwana Johnson to Corey Phillips to Kendell McFayden to Fox Slotemaker, among others - Bauld, whose fiery nature rivals that of injured captain Chris Walter, has carved out a leadership role among the backs.
"I try to help my teammates as much as I can - sometimes I'm too loud, but I always try to do it the right way," Bauld said, finishing a little sheepishly. "I've been in changing rooms where everybody's harsh, and in changing rooms where it's all about encouraging each other, so it's about trying to find the happy medium."
FC Buffalo: Steven Casey; Lewis White, Euan Bauld, Robert Williamson, Chris Camilli; Bayley Winkel (c), Jake Cooper, Keane McIvor, Austin Stout; Akean Shackleford, Isaiah Wilson. Subs used: Sammy Wasson, Kendell McFayden, Mitchell Ali.
Cleveland SC: Mikal Outcalt; James Haupt, Coletun Long, Declan McGivern, Chris Cvecko; Antonio Manfut, Lewis Dunne, Mike Derezic, Dan Koniarczyk, Riley Grant; Vinny Bell. Subs used: Kotaro Umeda, Mac Curran, Gianluca DiFranco, Ben Truax, Jesse Marinaro.
FC Buffalo, which has taken four points from its first four games, sits in fourth place in the National Premier Soccer League's Midwest Region Great Lakes East Division.
Fifth-place Rochester has two games in hand, however, while Greater Binghamton FC is on pace for one of the worst seasons in league history. The Erie Commodores (3-0-1), Cleveland SC (2-0-1) and the Fort Pitt Regiment (2-0) all remain undefeated.
FC Buffalo travels to Rochester's Marina Auto Stadium (460 Oak St., Rochester) - the former Capelli Sports Stadium and Sahlen's Stadium - to face the Lancers (0-1-1) at 5 p.m. June 3.