From top to bottom, the Buffalo District Soccer League's premier division may have never boasted more talent than it will in summer 2016.
As a whole, in the five-division league with a promotion-relegation system, change is inevitable and embraced. Consider this: over the last five years, the BDSL has jumped from 56 total teams to 66, and only two teams of the 12 premier teams in 2011 have maintained their perch (three, if you count Celtic's re-branding into SoHo FC).
The natural reshuffling of pro-rel and an increasing interest in the league, especially among high school and college-age players in the area, prevent a stale landscape of teams. In smaller men's leagues across the United States, the same squads face each other year after year, and while that setup may be conducive to longtime rivalries, it reduces the dynamism of player movement, Cinderella stories and intrigue of newly created sides.
In the BDSL, splintering and expansion have still managed to create Premier Division rivalries -- like Yemen Elite vs. FC Yemen, or Rogue FC vs. Roos FC -- or fostered possible superpowers, like the merger of two former premier sides, Lazio and Sharpshooters, under the latter's name.
Because it's nearly impossible to cover 66 teams across five divisions, BN Soccer will break down the premier division and lay out some bold predictions. For updates throughout the season, follow BDSL Rumors and the BDSL on Twitter, and you can see scores from all divisions in The Buffalo News' sports section on Tuesdays.
*How it works: the top six make the postseason -- a change from just the top four in 2015 -- while the bottom two get relegated to the championship division. The top two regular season finishers earn a bye into the semifinals.
12) BSC INTERNATIONAL (click the link for their roster)
2015 record: 9-2-0 in championship division, won wild semi over Celtic Hoops before falling to FC Yemen in the final
Major losses: Striker Alex Osuch (BSC Raiders), midfielder John Occhiuto (Raiders), defender Jeff Bauda (Raiders)
Major additions: Midfielder Corey L'Hommedieu (Keuka College), John L. Smith (Rush FC, ex-Medaille), Nate Holler (Tonawanda United, current Medaille)
Setting the scene: Inter rode a strong, organized defense and the goalkeeping of Medaille College starter Brian Arcara to the 2015 championship division regular season title, a spot in the final and promotion to the top flight.
Arcara returns, center back and manager Ross Karipidis has a gift for communication and organization, and a slew of newcomers from defunct Rush FC should help balance the side.
Seeing their spine plucked by Raiders is a gaping wound, though, and Inter won't have enough firepower to overcome.
How they could exceed No. 12: Holler, BDSL veteran Paul Johnson and Smith will be asked to replace Osuch's production (8 goals, 4 assists in '15), and their skill-sets actually complement each other pretty well. Breaking down Inter will be a challenge for even premier's best sides, so Karipidis' team will hope to be on the right side of 1-0 or 2-1 results.
Match to watch: Hosting FC Yemen at 4 p.m. July 17 at Nichols School could decide which team survives for another year in the top flight.
Underappreciated players: Brian Minehan, Michael Springer, Liam McManus -- all hard workers who are team-first.
Playful jab: Does L'Hommedieu translate to Man-God? That cannot be fun to try to live up to.
11) FC YEMEN
2015 record: 8-1-2, 2nd in regular season, won championship title over Inter, won Tehel Cup
Major losses: None
Major additions: Winger Abdul Al-Shaebi, midfielder Juan Camilo Villegas
Setting the scene: After a dream 2015 campaign that saw Taha Omar's team beat five premier division sides to capture the Tehel Cup, not much has changed. The offensive still revolves around the trio of captain Abdulqawi Mohamed and forwards Nageeb Ali and Ali Shawish, who combined for 38 of FC Yemen's 54 league goals. A full campaign with Adan Mukumbira, a 2015 mid-season transfer from Buffalo Bantu, will be welcomed.
The defense, however, is without question the worst in premier. They'll play entertaining matches and have some bizarre scorelines -- a 6-4 loss wouldn't be weird -- but ultimately, it will be a reach for them to stay up.
How they could exceed No. 11: It's definitely possible, and getting an early jump on the season through their training for and participation in the Werner Fricker Open Cup is an edge. Sure, they got smashed by Maryland's Christos FC, but they'll cause problems for favored BDSL opponents with their pace and fitness.
Match to watch: Opening day -- 6 p.m. May 1 vs. Yemen Elite at Lackawanna High School. The Yemen Derby will be a special evening to kickoff the season.
Underappreciated players: Bassam Harhara and Majed Mohamed won't jump out at you on the stat-sheet, but they're very sound in the midfield.
Playful jab: Is this the smallest team, in terms of stature, in BDSL history?
10) ROOS FC
2015 record: 4-4-3, 8th in premier
Major losses: Forward Cole Beale, midfielders Vinny Chimento and Myles Taylor, all to East Aurora FC; defender Ian Brown
Major additions: Josh Beshaw and Kurtis Maloney (Celtic Hoops), James Knapp (Chelsea)
Setting the scene: The demise of short-lived Golden Seals FC, an expansion team placed into Division I that wound up going kaput, was a boon for Roos, who were staring at relegation if the Seals solidified.
Losing the trio to East Aurora is a big blow, as is Brown, a useful two-way fullback. The back-line will be tested early and often this year, but gargantuan goalkeeper Greg Slabyk is among the best in the division.
If Beshaw, who made FC Buffalo's roster, has only limited availability, pressure will be on Alex Reid to trump his seven goals from 2015. But if Beshaw and Reid start most matches together, there won't be a fleeter-footed forward tandem in the land (or just Buffalo).
How they could exceed No. 10: SUNY Geneseo midfielder Mike Skrzypczyk and Fredonia's Sam Greco bring plenty of talent to the midfield -- and ex-Chelsea defender Knapp will be useful in the back. The current Hilbert College connection on this side -- Matt Barth, Travis Hicks, Maloney, Nick Clay and Anthony Pellicano -- may be valuable in fostering quick chemistry.
Match to watch: With so much changeover on both sides, the rivalry with Rogue FC -- formerly Boomslang FC and Sporting Roos -- has weakened, but it's still their match to watch. 6 p.m. May 8 at Orchard Park Soccer Complex.
Underappreciated players: Hicks has the chance to be a special player for Hilbert, and he'll turn some heads in premier. No one out-works defender Garrett Rehner.
Playful jab: [Inserts Chelsea joke]
2015 record: 3-7-1, 9th place
Major losses: Fullback Pat Zelko, striker Eric Schnirel, midfielder Jaime Salcedo
Major additions: Midfielders Andrew Incho and Andrea Conte, defender Victor Powell
Setting the scene: Clarence are in the same boat as Celtic United -- big underachievers in 2015 who boasted (and still boast) enough to talent to make the playoffs. Like United, Clarence also suffered from attendance issues, and star midfielder Gary Boughton's recent signing with the Rochester River DogZ of the National Premier Soccer League doesn't bode well for his BDSL availability.
The Canisius College flavor to the side is in tact, as Incho returns from a serious knee injury, and technically gifted Andrea Conte shuffles over from Sharpshooters to help in the midfield. Former Clarence High School and Griffs teammates Ryan Schroen and Derek Maier have strong odds to make a BDSL Rumors Best XI team.
How they could exceed No. 9: They'll need regular attendance from Boughton and will have to find goals from somewhere; Clarence finished with the third-fewest goals for in premier, and the two sides below them no longer exist. The continuity among former Canisius players is an asset, and speedy striker Tyler Hamill could have a goal-scoring renaissance.
Match to watch: A clash against Celtic United, who we expect will be jockeying with them for position in the table for much of the year, at 6 p.m. June 19 at Nichols School.
Underappreciated players: J.J. Hughes is the kind of player you want on your team, and 50-year-old keeper Lenny Previte just keeps chugging along. Not many players in the league have the technical ability -- and flair -- as Pat Conlon.
Playful jab: Why couldn't they convince Regan Steele and Chris Berardi to join the post-Canisius party?
2015 record: 2-6-3, 10th place
Major losses: Defender Greg Hoffman (Queenston), forward Mike Rhodes, Tim Huebsch
Major additions: Patrick Schulz, Kyle Wiatrowski and T.J. Kaszubski, all from SoHo FC; Luke Loecher (RVS United), Ian Brown (Roos), six players from Celtic Hoops, last year's championship division semifinalist
Setting the scene: Mookie Ballok gracefully stepped down from his managerial role for Celtic United, clearing the path for Fredonia's Brian Theuerkauf, who's been tasked with improving on a two-win season. He's brought along five core players from Hoops, then made four outstanding signings with the trio of Hobart players and Loecher, who plays at University of Rochester.
This is the hardest team for me to place. Commitment/attendance played a role in last year's debacle, but the new regime should solve that ailment. The midfield is very, very crowded, so Theuerkauf might have to get creative with his formations (has anyone ever run a 3-6-1?).
How they could exceed No. 9: Pretty easily, honestly, as there's a lot of young talent here. The influence of the Hoops players, some of whom earned a combative reputation last season, could lead to chemistry problems along the way, but winning games could negate that worry. Former Canisius College midfielder Chris Berardi and current Buffalo State standout Sammy Wasson will be a handful for opposing midfields.
Schulz and Loecher could have a sniff at one of BDSL Rumors' Best XI teams by season's end, and the performance of Shane Greene, who's no longer playing collegiate soccer, is a big wild card. Simply put, United did a better job in the offseason than Clarence, and that's rewarded in these preseason rankings.
Match to watch: Maybe the fiery demeanor of Hoops doesn't translate to premier, but if it does, expect fireworks from the 4 p.m. May 15 match against BSC Raiders at Nichols. Over-under on red cards? Four.
Underappreciated players: Wasson is a joy to watch. Schulz, the son of former Buffalo Bill Kurt Schulz, who also still plays in the BDSL, carries a legacy.
Playful jab: There's no question this team will lead premier in trendy hairstyles.
7) YEMEN ELITE
2015 record: 5-3-3, 6th place
Major losses: Defender Jordan England, striker Zein Abdulaziz, keeper Drew Colosimo, midfielder Ali Mohamed
Major additions: Keeper Scott Augustine, midfielder Jenaro Akeh, forward Chris Griffiths, defenders Koby Sapon-Amoah and Zach Schlei
Setting the scene: Losing 2015 BDSL Rumors premier first-team center back Jordan England to relocation just before the season is the major story-line, but manager Faress Saleh made several smart additions in two former Lazio players (Griffiths, Augustine), talented-if-mercurial Akeh and two outstanding defenders in left-footed Schlei and uber-athlete Sapon-Amoah, a to-be sophomore at Niagara.
Captain Mateo Escobar, a former UB center midfielder and co-founder of West Side International Soccer, is the general, but his availability is inconsistent. Elite will be gritty, physical and temperamental -- combustible, even -- making for some entertaining football.
How they could exceed No. 7: If 2015 had gone by the playoff rules of 2016, then YE would have just squeaked in. There's no shortage of individual talent on this side, but getting them to coexist would slide them from pretenders to contenders.
Both Kovan Menr and Layth Nori are bright but enigmatic -- at the very least, they'll bring creativity and a change of pace off the bench.
Match to watch: No question it's Week 1 vs. FC Yemen, which knocked out Elite in the 2015 Tehel Cup semifinals in penalty kicks. That's 6 p.m. May 1 at Lackawanna High School, if you forgot from earlier.
Underappreciated players: Bowdoin College alum Alex Marecki should have a standout first year in the BDSL, and a full season of Ali Adil could push YE into the playoffs. Ramsey Abdulmalik won't play a ton, but he's got more personality than almost anyone in the league.
Playful jab: You can't say anything mean about Faress because he's too friendly.
6) QUEENSTON FC
2015 record: 5-5-1, 7th place, Tehel Cup runners-up
Major losses: Midfielder Miguel Rodrigues, defender Eric Barnes, forward Nick Dumond
Major additions: Fullback Frank Cotroneo, midfielder Eric Albrecht, versatile Joe Conjerti, defender Greg Hoffman
Setting the scene: Brilliant in the Tehel Cup final, Rodrigues' departure is a massive loss, as is Dumond's speed up front. Fortunately for manager John Netter, his side boasts two of the best young players in the area -- Troy Brady and Frank Cotroneo -- but they'll juggle FC Buffalo and Empire United responsibilities throughout the summer. That's a little worrisome.
Chemistry and continuity are strengths -- these guys genuinely seem to like each other -- and Netter's shot-stopping and distribution make him the league's best keeper.
How they could exceed No. 6: Brady and Cotroneo must be integral parts of every game, and savvy veterans Hoffman and Conjerti can confidently replace what Barnes brought to the table.
Match to watch: While their opening day match against Amherst Sharpshooters qualifies as must-see soccer, you'll want to check out the rematch of the Tehel Cup final, at 4 p.m. May 8 at Lackawanna High School against FC Yemen.
Underappreciated players: Swiss army knife Ross Suitor -- a defender for St. Lawrence University who usually plays midfield or striker for Queenston -- is probably the side's most valuable player, while Canisius College reserve Joe Farrell could take a big step forward in his second year wearing fluorescent yellow.
Playful jab: If Celtic United have the most stylish haircuts, Queenston are contenders for the least.
2015 record: 7-4, 4th place, semifinal loss to BSC Raiders
Major losses: Midfielder Trevor Hill, forwards Yony Guardado and Mike Raftu
Major additions: Midfielders Cory Carter, Peter Marlette and Richie Gordon, defender Jeff Sekyere, forward Kyle Clifford
Setting the scene: Since BUSS went 3-7-1 in 2013, Bobby Calvaneso's team has advanced to the postseason the last two years. It should happen again this summer. The '16 team will need to hang around mid-table until Ezana Kahsay -- who plays for perennial power University of Akron and in the Professional Development League (PDL) -- returns for the final handful of games.
With Kahsay, the back-line could be top two in premier, but the departure of Trevor Hill is colossal. Ageless Polo Suazo, striker Richie Wilson and newcomers Cory Carter (Medaille College) and Peter Marlette (Lakeside) fuel BUSS' attack, but you worry about this team's age and composure against younger foes. Sure, Guardado wasted many a scoring chance, but perhaps BUSS took for granted how much pressure he applied to other back-fours.
How they could exceed No. 5: They could easily finish above Rogue FC, as their improved depth could compensate for their age. Even at 38 years old, center midfielder Polo Suazo is smarter picking his forays forward and rarely makes a bad decision with the ball.
Defenses can't focus their attention on one BUSS attacker, and Carter -- eight goals, three assists for the Mavericks last fall -- could make a compelling case for premier newcomer of the year.
Match to watch: Some people like to watch tennis on summer weekends -- which is cool -- but I'd take the clashes between BUSS and BSC Raiders any day. They'll square off at 2 p.m. June 19 at Nichols.
Underappreciated players: Miguel Rumbo's shiftiness creates free kicks regularly in dangerous positions, and he's a pro at getting underneath opponents' skin. Defender Josh Hammer falls into the BDSL All-Name Team, and combined with the ferocity of Mike Malcolm, Sekyere and Prince SaySay, teams will think twice before waltzing into the final third.
Playful jab: I'm not convinced they actually got better.
4) ROGUE FC
2015 record: 7-3-1, 3rd in championship division, promoted due to the departures of Lazio, Chelsea and Rush
Major losses: Midfielder Jack Welsh, forward Peter DiLorenzo
Major additions: Attackers Evan and Hunter Walsh, midfielder C.J. Scirto, versatile Braden Scales
Setting the scene: Formerly Sporting Roos and then Boomslang FC, Rogue underwent a managerial change just before the 2016 deadline but still managed to field an intriguing roster -- they have seven current or former NCAA Division I players on the roster, after all.
The notion of a five-man midfield comprising Zack Thomas, Evan Walsh, Scirto, Scales and Dan Pulaski should rightly terrify opponents, and with UB and FC Buffalo striker Hunter Walsh buzzing around up front, underestimating the premier newcomers would be a mistake.
Kyle Kleckner's return from red-card suspension will add toughness in the middle third, but it's hard to say with confidence that Rogue's defense is in the top half of the prem.
How they could exceed No. 4: I don't see them besting fourth place, and a young side could mean attendance issues along the way. If DiLorenzo were still around Buffalo, Rogue could leapfrog SoHo.
Match to watch: See Roos FC's entry. They play at 4 p.m. May 8 at Orchard Park Soccer Complex.
Underappreciated players: Like many in the Rogue midfield, Pulaski is constantly active, looking to get on the ball and probe forward. In terms of ability to take defenders on, Scirto is unquestionably top five in premier.
Playful jab: How committed will they be? Ultimately, that's probably Rogue's downfall if they have a bad campaign.
3) SOHO FC
2015 record: 7-3-1, 3rd place, lost to Amherst Sharpshooters in semifinals
Major losses: Kyle Herod, T.J. Kaszubski, Patrick Schulz and Kyle Wiatrowski, all from Hobart
Major additions: Nick Szabo, Nate Griffiths
Setting the scene: I could be drastically overrating SoHo. They're getting older as the rest of the league gets younger, and they're not that deep. BUT, when you have former FC Buffalo players Jake Rinow, Andy Tiedt, Bobby Ross, Josh Hall and Pablo Ordonez donning your kit, the playoffs are always within reach.
Empire Development Academy product Szabo might have limited availability due to weekend tournaments, but he could represent part of the Burgers' next wave. All Ryan Mangano does is score goals, and good luck marking Tiedt, Rinow and Ross on set pieces.
How they could exceed No. 3: The top two is so strong that the Burgers have a better chance of falling rather than rising. There's probably not a more injury-prone team in premier, and losing the Hobart quartet certainly doesn't help the team's collective fitness.
Match to watch: At 4 p.m. May 15 at Nichols, SoHo gets a run at Amherst Sharpshooters, with a chance to quiet all the hullabaloo from the Lazio summer merger.
Underappreciated players: Austin Tom earned professional experience as a target forward for the Syracuse Silver Knights of the Major Arena Soccer League, and he's a dark-horse candidate for one of BDSL Rumors' end-of-season all-star teams. Former pro Steve Butcher just turned 38, but he's still very good.
Playful jab: Heh, The Burgers.
2015 record: 7-3-1, 2nd place, lost to BSC Raiders in the premier finals (33-4-7 over the last four years, which is astounding)
Major losses: Defenders Andrew Crawford and Graham Taylor
Major additions: Too many to name, but Eric Brodfuehrer, Brandon Loncar, Drew Braun, Eric Steinmetz, Tom Fusillo and more, all from Lazio, which merged.
Setting the scene: The biggest offseason news came when Sharpshooters manager Trevor Lawler and former Lazio leader Ricky Martinez announced the two teams were pooling players under the Amherst club name. I'm not sure if it's an entirely good thing, but Sharpshooters have 22 starting-caliber players.
With 12 goals and five assists last year, former Canisius College midfielder/forward Regan Steele was the best player in the BDSL. He'll have even more help this year, as former Niagara University forward Brodfuehrer is a proven poacher and in the preseason premier best XI. Amherst will come at you in waves up front, too, as Trevor Lawler and Justin Hofschneider could bag 15 goals between them.
Belize international A.C. LaFlore, Buffalo State transfer Drew Braun, outstanding center half Graham Harris and gritty Jon Cary won't get beaten easily, and versatile Fusillo, Loncar, Martinez and McCann can all slot in the back if needed.
How they could win the league: They have the best chance of dethroning two-time defending champion BSC Raiders,
Match to watch: It's probable that 2 p.m. May 22 at Nichols -- a match between Sharpshooters and BSC Raiders -- will be a preview of the premier title game.
Underappreciated players: Brendan Lawler can score from anywhere within 40 yards of goal. Eric Steinmetz is both feisty and technical. Ben Mozg and Greg Anne almost never give the ball away. There are more players to write about, but I'll stop.
Playful jab: There was some controversy in Sharpshooters' Adam Durst maintaining the goalkeeping gig over former Lazio keeper Scott Augustine. Augustine landed on his feet with Yemen Elite, but we'll see if Sharpshooters made the best decision in goal.
1) BSC RAIDERS
2015 record: 9-2-0, 1st place, two-time defending BDSL premier champions
Major losses: Midfielders Ian Mort and Rudy Pikuzinski III, goalkeeper Ryan Arvin
Major additions: Alex Osuch, John Occhiuto and Jeff Bauda from BSC Inter, keeper Will Boerema, forwards Kwadwo Asante and Anthony Johnson
Setting the scene: Whether or not the rest of the league likes it, Raiders are still the team to beat. Participating in the USASA Amateur Cup -- despite a red-card marred loss to Phoenix Majors SC -- will help Rocky Palmeiro's team out of the gate, and the six additions above give Raiders more depth than they've had in recent memory.
Losing both Mort and Pikuzinski to relocation means that two new starting center midfielders will need to step up, but Chris Walter, Occhiuto, Casey Derkacz and Ryan Walter can all flourish in the role.
Why they'll win: McFayden, Derkacz and Chris Walter are three of the area's best players, and center half Matt Waddington proved he's still elite in the win over the Italian-Americans of the Rochester District Soccer League and even in the loss to Phoenix.
Before, McFayden was the only speed threat up front -- toss former Fairfield Stag Asante and freak athlete Anthony Johnson into the mix, and now Raiders have enough pace to pose all sorts of problems.
Match to watch: See Sharpshooters' entry above -- 2 p.m. May 22 at Nichols.
Underappreciated players: John Grabowski, Kyle Rogers, Colin Begy and Kyle Westerholt are all names that remind you that Raiders boast an absurd collection of riches.
Playful jab: Let's face it. No one wants them to three-peat.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who kept it under 4,000 words, at email@example.com