Considering the way the season started, FC Buffalo could have been in much worse shape by the midway point.
The Wolves were shocked at home by first-year club Rochester RiverDogz, 1-0, then were blanked 2-0 a week later by AFC Cleveland, the side that helped prevent FC Buffalo from reaching the postseason in 2015.
Since that May 21 loss, though, FC Buffalo are 3-0-1 in league play -- not counting a loss and a draw against Detroit City FC in the Rust Belt Derby -- and sit in third place in the Great Lakes Conference East Division, trailing Indy Eleven NPSL by three points but boasting a game in hand. With four games remaining, the playoffs are within reach, but the Wolves cannot afford to drop many points.
One thing is for sure: FC Buffalo's recent surge has heightened the chances of a nail-biting close to the regular season. Since the top two in the division advance to the Midwest Region playoffs, the Wolves must leapfrog Indy Eleven NPSL, whom they drew 3-3 on the road on June 19, or benefit from an unlikely AFC Cleveland meltdown.
To get more technical, the combined record of FC Buffalo's remaining four foes is 12-9-5, while Indy Eleven NPSL's final three teams boast a total mark of 3-10-5, aided by two matches against cellar-dweller FC Indiana. If FC Indiana can play spoiler in one of those two contests, then the July 8 clash between FC Buffalo and Indy Eleven NPSL at Robert E. Rich All High Stadium could decide whose season continues.
Should that final regular season match prove meaningful, then it's hard to script better drama as, unlike last season, FC Buffalo's fate will be in their own hands on the season's final day.
Before FC Buffalo's final foursome of matches kicks off against AFC Cleveland at 7 p.m. June 24 in Robert E. Rich All High Stadium, let's take stock of the hometown club -- position by position -- through six tilts.
Pros: FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy and assistant Pat Pidgeon, both goalkeepers by trade, have helped refine the skills of Nick Jeffs (Louisville), the preseason starter, and Steve Casey (Niagara), who was called upon for two-plus matches after Jeffs suffered a hip flexor injury.
The Wolves have conceded the second fewest goals per game, trailing only first-place AFC Cleveland, and the keepers, with one exception, have risen to the occasion when called upon.
Cons: That lone exception is the soft goal Jeffs conceded to Rochester in the season opener, a result that could haunt FC Buffalo down the stretch.
Pros: It's not a reach to say that FC Buffalo's defense in 2016 is the best in the club's seven-year history. The back line is deep, nasty and technical, and it's the chief reason the club is within spitting distance of the postseason.
Johnny McBeth (Hartwick) has been brilliant as a left back, even though it's not his natural position, while Keith Traut (Albany) and David Acuna Camacho (Monmouth) were outstanding in the weekend trip to Indiana and have rarely put a foot wrong this season.
Brian Paredes (LIU Brooklyn), more of an unknown than many of the newcomers, could be the Wolves' unsung hero, playing much bigger than his size and generally avoiding mistakes. Add in the usual toughness, versatility and tackles of veteran Chris Walter, and you've got a near-impenetrable back line.
Cons: It's nitpicking, but Kendell McFayden's red card in the first 10 minutes against Erie could have been calamitous. After serving his suspension in the first match-up with FC Indiana, the 2015 All-NPSL first-team selection has only played 10 minutes total over the four games since.
Pros: With respect to McBeth, Ian McGrath (Evansville) has been FC Buffalo's best overall player, winning challenges in the middle of the park, dominating in the air and potting three goals along the way. He's lethal on set pieces, intelligent in his positioning and decision making, and clutch in his finishing.
McGrath's all-around play and production make it easy to overlook Jack Donaldson (Hartwick), but the sturdy holding midfielder has been tough in the tackle and important in breaking up attacks. His delivery on set pieces is among the best on the team, too, which I don't think many people expected.
Cons: I can't think of any.
Pros: The "3" in the 4-2-3-1 has offered some bright moments. Jitterbug Bayley Winkel (Robert Morris) was terrific against Indy Eleven NPSL, Philip Persson (Albany) has created chances when healthy, English imports Sam Byles and Jim Orvis have been valuable as substitutes, Kieran Toland (St. Bonaventure) rarely gives the ball away, and Isaiah Barrett (Binghamton) brings a top-notch work rate to the table.
Cons: No one in the attacking midfield has been consistently effective this summer, and the FC Buffalo coaching staff continues to shuffle the deck to find a combination that works. Toland and Winkel appear to be the two in the best form, while Braden Scales (University at Buffalo) could parlay a nice outing against Indy Eleven NPSL into more minutes. Regardless, there's a lot of room for improvement in this group.
Pros: Romario Guscott, coming off an eight-goal freshman campaign at LIU Brooklyn, continues to tease supporters with glimpses of talent, yet thus far has only been productive on the road (goal vs. DCFC, goal and assist vs. Indy Eleven NPSL). Perhaps he's rounding into form late in the campaign; reports out of training suggest he's turned a corner.
Cons: Guscott struggled so much with his hold-up play in the first two games that he found himself on the bench against Erie, as Toland's strength on the ball and reliable touch paid dividends. The Toland-at-target experiment didn't last long, though, and Guscott is back to first-choice forward heading into a massive match on Friday.
Perhaps Evansville's Jared Robinson can give FC Buffalo a boost up front after signing with the club on Thursday, the day before the National Premier Soccer League roster freeze.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who's impressed that Danny Szetela and Shalrie Joseph are still playing soccer, at email@example.com