Just how good is this season's Buffalo Blizzard team?
Fans -- as well as players and the coach -- should get a pretty good indication today when the Blizzard (11-8) invades Milwaukee's Bradley Center to play the National Professional Soccer League's defending champion in the circuit's toughest arena for visiting teams (2 p.m., Radio 107.7 FM).
"This is a good test to see where we are and how far we've come," Buffalo midfielder Danny Barber said after Friday's practice in Marine Midland Arena.
"We've won three in a row and done well on the road," added forward Bernie Lilavois. "If we can get by the elite team in the league, we'll know exactly where we're at."
"If we want to win a championship, we have to go through teams like this," said head coach George Fernandez. "Physically, I think we're capable. But the big part of this game is mental. Are we mentally capable of getting the best out of ourselves and performing the way we should?"
Barber, Lilavois and Fernandez -- all former members of the defunct Cincinnati Silverbacks -- are very familiar with the strength of the Milwaukee Wave (13-8 overall, 9-1 at home), leader of the Central Division and the NPSL's oldest (15 years) franchise.
While the Blizzard plays the Wave only twice a year, the Silverbacks faced Milwaukee six times a season. Last year Cincinnati split the series, but lost all three games in the Bradley Center, where the Wave went 19-1 en route to a league-best 28-12 record.
"They've got a great atmosphere there," Lilavois said. "The fans come out and they make it very difficult for you to play in their house."
"They've created an environment that every home team wishes to create where it's tough for guys to come in," Barber said. "They probably take more pride when they step on (the floor) because it's their home court and they want to make sure they put on a good show."
They said it's not just the arena that makes Milwaukee tough.
The Wave is anchored by Victor Nogueira, the best goalkeeper in the NPSL, and coached by Keith Tozer, the winningest coach (301 victories) in NPSL history.
Nogueira, last season's MVP and the "Goalkeeper of the Year" for the past three campaigns, "is probably the best ever I've ever seen in the indoor game," Fernandez said. Nogueira currently tops the NPSL with an 8.38 points-against average.
"Keith Tozer (last year's NPSL Coach of the Year) is very disciplined," said Lilavois. "He doesn't let any of their guys slack. . . . He's a very strong competitor and he gets that out of all his players, from player No. 1 to player No. 16."
Buffalo enters the weekend riding a three-game winning streak, which comes after a four-game losing skid. And although all the victories were against the league's weaker teams (Detroit, Montreal and Baltimore), Fernandez is very pleased with the team's recent play.
"I think the last two or three games we've played outstanding defensively, and that's just helped our offense. The guys have been very unselfish," he said.
In last Sunday's 24-6 blowout against Baltimore, the Blizzard tied a club record by allowing just 14 shots. Goalkeeper Billy Andracki set a team-low mark by only needing to make five saves.
"We're No. 1 in allowing (the fewest) shots," Fernandez said. "We're only giving up 28 or 29 (28.6 actually) shots a game. As bad as our record might be, for the losses that we've had, we still don't allow too many shots on our goalkeepers."
The Blizzard returns home Sunday to face the Wichita Wings at 2 p.m. Wichita will be completing a three-games-in-42-hours stretch after hosting Philadelphia Friday and visiting Detroit Saturday.