After dropping their first two matches in a 10-game regular season, most games thereafter have been viewed as "must-win" by an FC Buffalo (4-3-1) team chasing AFC Cleveland (6-2) and Indy Eleven NPSL (6-2-1) in the NPSL Midwest Region Great Lakes East Conference table.
While the sense of urgency has helped the Wolves climb back into the race, their match at 7 p.m. July 2 at the Erie Commodores (1-3-3) is a true elimination match; with a loss tonight, FC Buffalo would have no chance at reaching second place and securing the division's final playoff spot. Gannon University will host the game, which costs $5 for adults and $2 for kids.
1) The Great Lakes East table: To break down the numbers, FC Buffalo stand six points back of first-place Indy, with a game in hand, and five points behind AFC Cleveland, who also have two matches left (home vs. Rochester tonight, home vs. Erie on July 8). If the Royals win either of those matches, or get a point from each, they'll clinch a playoff spot.
2) Wolves should be wary: To call tonight's contest the less difficult of the two remaining games for FC Buffalo -- the July 8 home tilt against Indy Eleven NPSL could be one for the ages -- might be unfair to Erie. Although the Wolves thoroughly outplayed the Commodores on May 27, despite playing with 10 men for 80 minutes, it's easy to forget that match was Erie's first of the season.
Although John Melody's side has been eliminated from playoff contention, they've produced some impressive results: a 4-0 win over Indy Eleven NPSL, and a pair of 1-1 draws with the Rochester River Dogz, who just beat FC Buffalo on Sunday. Erie have a history of improving in the second half of seasons, so they could trouble FC Buffalo tonight.
3) FC Buffalo's player to watch: Romario Guscott, striker. The Wolves' intern, Alex Beilman, penned a piece on the LIU Brooklyn's recent impact -- a goal and three assists in the last three matches. Instead of wearing down as the summer season has progressed, Guscott has actually looked more lively, connecting better with his midfield, working feverishly and making smarter runs off the ball.
His hold-up play still needs refining, but he showed against Indy Eleven NPSL and Rochester that his diagonal runs behind defenses are what makes him the most dangerous.
4) Erie's players to watch: Billy Colton and Hamza Mourchid, attackers. The Commodores no longer have Danny Deakin, the team's talisman two of the last three years, as the attacking midfielder opted to play for Detroit City FC. Even with familiar faces like Melody and tactician Neil Brown at the helm, Erie's still trying to find a new identity through its personnel.
Colton, whose major impact in the first match was drawing a red card on Kendell McFayden before being subbed off at halftime, has found better form since the opener, while Mourchid was the only forward to threaten in the first meeting between the two clubs. La Salle University teammates Greg Henry and Colman Kennedy are also worth keeping an eye on.
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5) Extra rest: Coming off four games in a span of nine days, FC Buffalo players have had a chance to recover from the challenging (and brutally hot) stretch physically and mentally, and should look more active Saturday than in the lethargic, fatigued performance in Rochester.
The prospect of playing a win-and-you're-in match against Indy Eleven NPSL should give the club a further push to win this road game against a rival. The Wolves have won in Erie in each of the last two seasons, by a score of 4-2 each time.
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who's excited for Chick-Fil-A, at firstname.lastname@example.org