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New FC Buffalo coaching staff energized despite much uncertainty

The two weeks preceding the National Premier Soccer League season is pure chaos for a coaching staff, especially one with a combined zero games of coaching experience at the level.

Frank Butcher, Casey Derkacz and John Grabowski, the three-pronged team hired to guide FC Buffalo into a new chapter, are in the thick of the craziness, with the first match of the season coming against the Dayton Dynamo at 7 p.m. May 20 at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium.

Tickets are $7 in advance, $8 at the gate or $10 for a doubleheader with the Western New York Flash, which begins at 4 p.m.

Derkacz, the former University at Buffalo and FC Buffalo defender, heads the training sessions with Grabowski's assistance, while Butcher - also head coach of the Grand Island High School boys team - has taken on the role of manager and overseer. Nick Mendola is the team's lone active owner, with Scott Frauenhofer, Ray Siminski and Josh Batten no longer involved in day-to-day responsibilities.

As the new coaching staff adjusts to their specific roles, the natural instability of the preseason has their heads spinning.

"You only have a week and a half, two weeks, when you have guys coming in and out, some kids are still taking exams and some kids are flying in a couple days before," Derkacz explained after FC Buffalo scrimmaged a local men's team. "It's tough to get the continuity, and it's tough for us to get fully excited because I don't know if we know what we've got. But it's definitely exciting to be a part of it."

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With Buffalo's relative scarcity of available turf fields, the club has practiced at Sportsplex, Sweet Home High School and Grand Island High School so far.

Building around small groups of local college players has helped ease the process. Bauti Pedezert, Mackenzie Roach and Steve Casey are Niagara Purple Eagles, while David Enstrom, Fox Slotemaker, Braden Scales and Cameron Hogg are remnants of the now-defunct University at Buffalo men's program.

It's feasible that as many as six of those seven players - all legitimate NCAA Division I starters - will grace the Wolves' XI in the opener. An injury to St. Bonaventure junior Kieran Toland hurts FC Buffalo's spine, but it's possible he'll be able to return toward the end of the campaign.

Former University at Buffalo standout David Enstrom, right, will suit up for FC Buffalo for the first time. (Don Nieman/Special to The News)

The continued commitment of defender Chris Walter and striker Kendell McFayden, far and away the most experienced Wolves on the roster, is one reason for The Situation Room, FC Buffalo's supporters group, to be encouraged.

For those unacquainted with FC Buffalo, Walter is the club's all-time leader in appearances and yellow cards; his gritty style, well-timed slide tackles and sheer energy are infectious. Don't expect flair - just a hardworking, blue-collar attitude that personifies the city.

FC Buffalo's Chris Walter leads the team in all-time appearances with 51. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

McFayden, who's played professionally with the Rochester Rhinos, is a rocket-fueled striker who thrives when he gets behind defenses off long passes or well-placed through balls. If he gets a step on a defender, he will not be caught.

FC Buffalo goalscorer Kendell McFayden signs autographs after a 2-0 win in 2o16. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News file photo)

It's with the final group of players to arrive, however, where the most intrigue and mystery lie. Jamaican striker Akean Shackleford, who wrapped up his freshman year at Indian Hills Community College in Iowa, was named a NJCAA (JUCO) second-team All-American after scoring 22 goals. Fellow forward Julien Dragomir - a UNLV transfer who was showered with honors after his senior season at Division II's Montana State-Billings - could be a difference-maker at the NPSL level.

The attacking duo was the last to arrive, however, which means they will likely take some time to adapt.

With personnel coming and going - some local players may practice one night and have a final exam the next - the emphasis in training has been getting as many touches in as possible.

"[It's been] a lot of technical work - a lot of guys are coming off of spring season, some guys aren't coming off anything, so a lot of touches and we're getting into some possession stuff," Grabowski said. "We're getting these guys used to playing together - learning who's taking two touches, who's taking one, who's making which runs."

FC Buffalo midfielder Isaiah Barrett, in blue, is back for a second season with the club. (Matt Weinberg/Special to The News)

Dayton, FC Buffalo's first opponent, are much further ahead in their preparation - Saturday will be mark their seventh match since April 5, divided into five friendlies and their season opener, a 3-3 draw at defending NPSL champion AFC Cleveland.

Bowling Green starter Tate Robertson, a pacy and persistent striker, is the Dynamo's chief attacking threat, while NCAA Division III All-American Matt Kinkopf is another enticing option up front.

In the back, it's 38-year-old former Senegalese international Ibra Kebe who holds down the fort, helping protect former Pittsburgh Riverhound Ryan Huling's goal. Three players from Wright State and two more from the University of Dayton dot the roster.

While important, the result on Saturday night won't define the season. Rather, it's the first chance for FC Buffalo to build continuity in a competitive setting. How will they handle conceding a goal? Will they be organized in transition? How well do they execute the coaches' game plan? In the short NPSL season, it's often the team that jells the quickest - not necessarily the most talented side - that snatches a playoff spot.

For now, the anticipation builds.

"I'm excited to get going - that anxiousness where you can't wait to get started," Butcher said. "It hasn't been that long, but it seems like it's been forever waiting for this day to come."

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Here's a list of players on FC Buffalo's roster with Western New York high school ties:

*Gary Boughton - Lancaster
*Kendell McFayden - Williamsville North
*Chris Walter - Nichols
*Isaiah Barrett - Wilson
*Nick Szabo - Grand Island
*Troy Brady - Grand Island
*Frank Cotroneo - Grand Island
*Jeremy Figler - Grand Island
*Steve Casey - Williamsville South
*Braden Scales - St. Joe's
*Josh Beshaw - Lockport



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