A look through FC Buffalo's roster might be a little overwhelming. The official website lists 43 players -- one shy of enough to field four different starting XIs -- and few names will ring familiar to casual local soccer fans.
Fortunately, six home matches at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium await supporters, plus nearby away games in Rochester (June 26) and Erie (July 2), leaving plenty of time to get acquainted with a new set of fan favorites. The season opener kicks off at 7 p.m. May 14 at All-High.
Given the uncertainty surrounding player availability and the sheer size of the roster, don't expect this preview to be perfect. FC Buffalo has dedicated housing spots to 16 out-of-town players, leading to an influx of new faces and talent.
But, the following rundown will identify likely standouts, given their respective pedigrees and the chatter surrounding the club.
GOALKEEPER: University of Louisville keeper Nick Jeffs was brought in to be FC Buffalo's starter after a sophomore season that saw him play the first six matches, highlighted by a 1-1 draw with eventual national semifinalist Syracuse.
The 6'4 Ottawa, Ont., native grew up backstopping the Fury's youth academy five hours north of Buffalo, and he'll be the clay for FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy, a former NCAA Division III National Champion keeper at St. Lawrence University.
OUTSIDE BACKS: The Wolves have a wealth of options on the defensive flanks, mostly due to the positional versatility of their midfielders and backs. Expect Keith Traut, who just finished his junior year at Albany, to flourish along the back four -- potentially at right back. The 6'2 defender earned All-America East first team honors and served as co-captain last year; he could be among the top fullbacks in the entire National Premier Soccer League.
Early reports on Brian Paredes, an outside back from Long Island University-Brooklyn, are glowing, and he's likely to feature from the get-go. Perhaps the biggest wild card is Sam Byles, the former Arsenal Academy standout from London, who played fullback in the youth system and holding mid more recently for Southampton Solent, a university side. How quickly will he adapt to the American game? It's possible that he and Paredes will battle for a starting spot.
Andrew Crawford, a graduate of Williamsville South High School but a soccer product of the Empire Revolution Development Academy, suffered an injury early in his freshman year with MAAC-champion Rider and, now fully healthy, will take the summer season to sharpen his play for the fall. No relation to former Buffalo Blizzard star by the same name, Crawford will fight for a regular spot in the 18-man game-day roster.
Longtime FC Buffalo midfielder-defender Chris Walter -- who sits atop the leader board in club appearances (44) and yellow cards (19) -- could slot in as an outside back once he serves his one-game suspension from his red card against AFC Cleveland in the 2015 season finale.
Niagara's Koby Sapon-Amoah is a tremendous athlete with improving soccer acumen, and he could be called into starting duty early in the season before the full complement of players arrives.
St. Joe's product Braden Scales, who graduates from the University at Buffalo on Saturday but has one more year of eligibility, could feature some at outside back, given some tinkering that Bulls coach Stu Riddle has done this spring season.
Villanova recruit Frank Cotroneo (Empire DA, Grand Island HS), St. Bonaventure red-shirt freshman Nikko Richards, St. Lawrence's Ross Suitor (Lewport) and his college teammate Austin Dilts will likely serve primarily as fullback depth, although Cotroneo is a name to keep an eye on for future seasons.
CENTER BACKS: This could very well be FC Buffalo's strongest position when the full roster is available. Monmouth defender David Acuña Camacho was the prize signing of the summer, as the senior just won Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Defender of the Year honors.
The former Costa Rica youth international can ping a long ball beautifully -- you'll see that in the video below -- but connects on short passes and wins decisive tackles. It is a highlight video, but given his accolades, DAC is the real deal.
Incumbent center back and All-NPSL first-team selection Kendell McFayden is the club's top returning player, as his pace makes him almost unbeatable in a straight line, and his aerial ability serves as a threat on both attacking and defensive set pieces.
Along the opposite coast at University of California-Riverside, mustachioed center half Stephen Copley earned All-Big West second team honors last fall, and strong showings from the to-be senior will give the Wolves' coaching staff the luxury of moving Acuna Camacho around the formation.
Both Traut and Sapon-Amoah are both comfortable in the center of the park, too, should they be needed.
HOLDING CENTER MIDFIELDERS: This is now perhaps the most trendy position in soccer, as it caters to two different types of players: physical destroyers who decisively win tackles (say, Leicester's N'Golo Kante or City's Fernandinho) or defensively capable distributors who connect the defense to the midfield and forwards (like United Michael Carrick or Columbus' Wil Trapp).
From his interview on the "Football Club of Buffalo Show," Hartwick College stalwart Jack Donaldson thrives in this No. 6 role, classifying more as a destroyer than connector, although adept at both. The Scot was selected to the All-Sun Belt second team as a junior and may quickly become a favorite of The Situation Room, FC Buffalo's supporters group.
Evansville sophomore Ian McGrath will likely play a major role, as the 6'5 Purple Ace can smash from distance (see below) as well as stand tall in front of the back line. If FC Buffalo plays its usual 4-2-3-1, the Donaldson-McGrath pairing will be a formidable wall in front of a stacked back four.
Isaiah Barrett, a Wilson High School and Empire United product who signed last year with FC Buffalo before a major injury sidelined him for months, may be the next in line after Donaldson and McGrath. Strong, fast and tenacious, Barrett joins Cotroneo and Troy Brady as three building blocks for the future.
St. Bonaventure's Anthony Gaglianese, Byles and Walter are other options at holding mid, as well as Acuna Camacho.
WINGERS: The loss of Andres Vega to injury poses a problem for FC Buffalo, but look for returning team MVP Andrew Ferguson (Niagara University) and Robert Morris transfer Bayley Winkel to play regularly on the flanks. Both Wolves have above-average technical ability with a flair for creating chances.
Section VI player of the year Troy Brady (Grand Island HS) should see time on the wings for FC Buffalo before he heads to Canisius College for his freshman season.
He's a clinical finisher with a deceptive burst of speed, and we've yet to see him look overmatched in a game against older competition. With strong training sessions, he could force his way into the 18 on a regular basis.
Byles' Southampton Solent teammate Jim Orvis, Belmont's Matt Lopoyda, Niagara's Adel Rahman and St. Lawrence's Morgan Smith will all have the chance to find minutes on the wings, as this position, perhaps more than any other, is up for grabs.
ATTACKING CENTER MIDFIELDERS: Hartwick College's Jamie O'Grady could emerge as club captain this summer, as although the reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year and Sun Belt Tournament Outstanding Player has recently battled knee problems, there's no doubting his ability to produce (11 goals in 18 matches as a junior).
Other options in this role include Philip Persson, an All-America East first-team selection with Albany, and Nicky Watson, a former Niagara attacker who transferred to Wofford after the 2014 season. Both offer the creativity and deception demanded from the No. 10 role; the former notched 13 assists over his four years with the Great Danes, while the latter paced Niagara in points in 2013 and 2014.
Rounding out this position group are Regan Steele, a Canisius College graduate whose work rate and ability to bulldoze through the midfield should benefit the Wolves, and Kieran Toland, a current Bonnies midfielder who can score from distance and create for his teammates. Murphy has a wealth of options at this crucial spot, too.
Strikers: Eight different strikers could see minutes this season, with LIU-Brooklyn forward Romario Guscott expected to lead the way. As a freshman, the 6'1 Jamaican registered seven goals -- good for second on the Blackbirds -- on only 15 shots on target. We'll see how close Guscott can be in reproducing former Wolves forward Ngwese Ebangwese's impact as a lone striker.
Late addition Johnny McBeth, who has transferred from Upper Iowa University to Hartwick, is intriguing; while he played more of a creative role for his previous Division II school (seven assists) but could project as a second forward for FC Buffalo.
Several local players -- Niagara's Alex Dimitriu and Steve Pondeca, University at Buffalo's Hunter Walsh, St. Bonaventure's Josh Beshaw, Empire product Ben Noel and Abdi Sabtow -- could see meaningful minutes, with the four local college players the most likely to deputize.
PREDICTION: Given minimal preparation time before the season, it's crucial that FC Buffalo show signs of chemistry and organization early on, as the dynamic changes as new players return from school and the 18-man game-day roster fluctuates. This perhaps the biggest challenges of the NPSL season, but nearly every team is up against it.
In terms of talent, though, FC Buffalo ranks neck-and-neck with Indy Eleven NPSL -- the new iteration of last year's regional champion Indiana Fire -- and a notch above Erie, Rochester and FC Indiana. AFC Cleveland, which often keeps its cards tight to its chest, remain a dark horse for the 2016 campaign.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who's about ready for this season to get underway, at firstname.lastname@example.org