Thirty-seven soccer players had an opportunity Friday to make an impression on FC Buffalo head coach Brendan Murphy and his staff, competing in possession drills, small-sided games and an extended 11-vs.-11 scrimmage at Sahlen's Sports Park.
When Murphy first addressed the tryout participants, he was adamant that he would not sign anyone from the day's session, a departure from years past, and that he hoped to carry a smaller roster in 2017 - probably 26-28 players - compared to the 40+ players who suited up for the Wolves in 2016.
The fifth-year head coach also confirmed that the club will house out-of-town players again this year, which further narrows the slots available for local players.
"Basically what I'm looking for at this [session] is who's going to help us win NPSL games, who's going to get us to the playoffs, who's going to help us beat the NPSL champions next year," Murphy said, referring to Midwest Region foe and reigning NPSL winners AFC Cleveland.
At the close of the two-hour session, Murphy mentioned that he had a list of 12 to 15 players whom he'd like to see again - there's another tryout on Jan. 6 at the same location.
Here are my 10 thoughts from observing the tryouts:
1) Spotlight on Pa Lu: The WNY Player of the Year and NSCAA All-American tested his mettle against players significantly older and didn't look outclassed, yet did not dominate. I spoke to him briefly after the session - he felt no nerves, he said, and was comfortable playing in front of Murphy, who'd coached him at Black Watch Premier.
"I just want to enjoy the game, let it come to me and not rush it, play it calm and enjoy the game," said Lu, whose International Prep program won four sectional titles and the 2014 Class D NYS title.
Lu, joined at the tryout by All-Western New York teammate Siang Hnin Lian, broke in on goal during the 11-vs.-11 scrimmage but was fairly clattered to the turf by goalkeeper Kyle Cunningham's challenge. Lu got up gingerly but was fine shortly thereafter.
While he has yet to choose a college, Lu mentioned that he will attend an identification camp at Syracuse University next week and then a similar tryout for West Virginia University in February. Commend the soccer star born in a refugee camp in Thailand for setting his sights high. He's certainly left his mark on Western New York soccer already.
2) Division I turnout: Remarkably few current NCAA Division I players were in attendance, though FC Buffalo has cast its net far and wide for those players in the past - they typically sign in March or April.
Two Robert Morris University players - Kai Olguin and Jake Cooper - turned in strong performances during the tryout, looking more accustomed to the pace and pressure than most.
Bayley Winkel, their teammate at RMU and FC Buffalo player in 2016, attended the tryout but watched from the sidelines as he recovers from a shoulder injury.
Frank Cotroneo, who red-shirted in his freshman year at Villanova, was up and down in the short session but still looks promising moving forward.
Ethan Witkowski, a reserve forward for the University at Buffalo, wasn't especially noticeable until some bright moments at the end of the 11-vs.-11 scrimmage.
3) Callahan shows well: No, not Syracuse senior Liam, who wasn't in attendance, but his younger brother Aidan - a Sweet Home grad and freshman at St. Lawrence University - acquitted himself well.
The no-frills defender won several tackles from longtime Wolf Kendell McFayden and tracked speedy Ali Shawish (Daemen College) well, while looking calm in his distribution. He reminds me a little of Adam Lauko, a Wisconsin graduate who played two seasons for FC Buffalo.
4) Local Division III players involved: Fredonia's James Ritchie, Ryan Keller and Chad Gilson all participated, as well as former Fredonia player Joe Vucic. Of the four, Ritchie appeared the sharpest, sliding a terrific short pass to Kendell McFayden in the opposing 18-yard box and holding the ball up well otherwise. Vucic did slot a penalty kick twice - the second after Murphy made him retake it for added pressure.
Buffalo State was represented in lively midfielder-forward August Finn and Medaille transfer Junior Geegba, while the Mavs trotted out Prince Saysay. Finn was a commanding, vocal presence in the midfield; his athleticism and physicality impressed.
5) Random standouts: While it wasn't easy identifying players throughout the session - they were differentiated only by small numbers on their sleeves - a few players who caught my eye were tidy midfielder Eli Yasuna, who plays Global Premier Soccer in Massachusetts, and St. Francis High School alum Tom Espinosa, who kept forcing me to look down at my sheet to see who he was.
Alex Shafer, a Buffalo & District Soccer League veteran, cut out several attacks and showed soft touch in possession.
6) Youngsters abound: Four high school juniors - St. Joe's Max Krajacic, Andre Torrico and Tom Stankowski, plus Newfane's Trevor Moreland - took part in the tryout. Consider them far-off prospects at this point for the NPSL club, but their immediate club and high school futures are bright. All four of them were honored in the 2016 Boys Soccer Honor Roll.
"It's good to see that there's a bunch of high school kids, and it's something we'd like to see more of," Murphy said. "[It] gives us a chance to get an early evaluation on them and see how they fit into this environment."
7) Empire Development Academy: The U.S. Soccer-sanctioned development academy had two representatives - Joe Alex (U-15/16) and Brett Stern ('17/'18, committed to Duquesne) - on hand. The former played older than his age and bigger than his size, while the latter showed the ability and willingness to take on defenders.
8) BDSL players who took part, with their 2016 club in parentheses:
Chris Walter (BSC Raiders)
Kendell McFayden (BSC Raiders)
Josh Beshaw (Roos)
Alex Shafer (Rogue/Roos)
Ryan Keller (EAFC)
James Ritchie (EAFC)
Joe Vucic (EAFC)
Trevor Moreland (Roos)
Saleman Salim (BUSS)
Aidan Callahan (Beast City)
Brian Arcara (BSC Inter)
Prince Saysay (BUSS/Bantu)
Ryan Pytlewski (SPAL)
Wesley Rider (SPAL)
Hussain Omar (FC Yemen)
Ali Shawish (FC Yemen)
9) Returnees: All-time FC Buffalo appearances leader Chris Walter was his usual aggressive self, going to ground on at least three occasions for tackles. McFayden looked sprightly if a bit wasteful on his chances, while Josh Beshaw, healthy after a long string of shoulder issues, was powerful down the flanks.
10) Merry Christmas!
Email Ben Tsujimoto, who couldn't think of a 10th note for the life of him, at firstname.lastname@example.org