Knowing a loss to Rochester would even further damage their slim hopes at the National Premier Soccer League postseason, FC Buffalo came out flat.
Very flat. Inexplicably.
The scoreline of the Lancers' 2-1 win Friday at Aquinas Institute doesn't tell the full story. With a little more luck – and without Wolves' goalkeeper Cameron Hogg's excellent interventions – Rochester could have poached five goals in the first 45 minutes and turned this one into a snoozer.
"I don't know," answered FC Buffalo head coach Frank Butcher when asked why the team was lethargic out of the gate. "I thought we were ready, we had a good week [of training], but some of the guys didn't have the jump in their legs right off the start. You don't want to blame it on travel – it's not much of a ride. I can't really explain why we were slow to start today."
Lancers midfielder August Finn, who plays his college ball at Buffalo State, and Ben Allan found the back of the net, while Wolves' substitute Akean Shackleford brought his side one back in the 79th.
FC Buffalo's record drops to 2-4-2, leaving them with eight points through eight matches, good for fifth place in the seven-team conference. The Wolves travel to Dayton for a 4 p.m. match Sunday.
[Look back at BN Soccer's live tweets from the match]
SETTING THE STAGE: Two factors played into FC Buffalo's lackluster first half: a second-choice lineup and keen personnel maneuvering from Lancers' head coach Doug Miller, who wasn't at the first meeting between the two sides.
With David Enstrom unavailable, and Chris Walter and Akean Shackleford listed as reserves, Butcher rolled with Julien Dragomir as the lone striker and Austin Stout in the central midfield.
"Akean is hurt," Butcher explained. "He wasn't going to go at all today, but then he said he could give us 15, so we got him in and it paid quick dividends for us. Without the injury in the week, we might have done better."
"Chris ... had some things going on this week, so we tried to go with another guy and it didn't work out like we hoped."
"It was kind of a different lineup," admitted FC Buffalo center back Jordan Sinclair, "but that shouldn't really matter in terms of getting results because we do have quality in the team to beat teams like this."
On the other side, Miller started Antonio Manfut – who was red-carded in the first match-up between the two sides – as a second striker and emphasized quickness and pace, at the expense of size, in his midfield.
FOREBODING START: Throughout the opening 25 minutes, FC Buffalo's defense and midfield were on their heels, as Manfut, Rafael Godoi, Lukas Fernandes and Anthony Rozzano applied heavy pressure on the ball and attacked directly into threatening areas.
Whether under pressure or not, the Wolves struggled to connect simple passes, then responded by hoofing long balls toward Dragomir, who was bodied off easily by Jake Schindler and Alex Harling.
From the onset, chances were ripe for the home side. Will Stone, selected to BN Soccer's Midseason Best XI for the conference, nearly curled in a left-footed shot in the third minute, forcing Hogg to dive to his right and push inches wide.
Fifteen minutes later, Fernandes dribbled into the heart of the FC Buffalo defense, forced a center back to commit and then played Godoi in alone on Hogg. The FC Buffalo keeper got a quick jump off his line, making himself big enough to block the Brazilian's close try with his body.
Off the ensuing corner kick, Manfut found Schindler in the box, and the big center half clipped a ball toward Fernandes' unmarked run down the middle – Hogg again bailed out the Wolves with a sprawling, mid-air save.
Following these high-quality scoring chances, Rochester's first marker came on a rather harmless play. Thirty-five yards from goal, Manfut decided to smack a shot toward Hogg's cage – his strike caromed off Fox Slotemaker's side and into Finn's path.
"We started a bit slow – I don't know what the reason for that was," said Sinclair. "They had some quick guys up front, and we kind of struggled to deal with some runs, and on set pieces we were a bit off, and second balls off corners – when they got headed out, they seemed to be sharper on that."
HOGG ON THE LEVEL: Five minutes later FC Buffalo center back Sinclair tried to step in front of Fernandes' searching pass into the box, but he accidentally handled the ball.
The assistant referee waved his flag vigorously, and after a short discussion, the center referee placed the ball just outside of the 18-yard box. The discussion continued, though, and the placement of the ball was overturned – the handball was determined to happen in the box, meaning a penalty kick to Rochester.
After a long stoppage for FC Buffalo contesting the call, both on the field and Butcher with the fourth official, Antonio Manfut stepped up to take the PK. Hogg stood tall.
Just two minutes later, a deft layoff by Manfut to Stone at the edge of the six was foiled by a last-ditch slide from Sinclair, likely denying Rochester's big No. 9 a goal.
ADJUSTMENTS: Conceding the deluge of scoring chances and then the game's first goal forced Butcher's hand. Walter replaced Isaiah Barrett in the 32nd minute, which pushed Stout out to the left wing and placed the substitute in the No. 6 role.
The usual FC Buffalo captain's entrance provided more grit and evened the game out through halftime, although sustained possession – especially in threatening areas – remained elusive for the visitors.
Little changed through the first 20 minutes of the second half; Sinclair disrupted another attack as the last man, but struggled mightily in his attempts to build out of the back, inviting frustration from his teammates. The poise on the ball and positioning of Enstrom, who's brilliantly connected the defense and the midfield this summer, was noticeably absent.
Dangerous Lukas Fernandes created two prime chances in a seven-minute span: his bending, goal-bound free kick was batted away by a flying Hogg, then the midfielder hummed a sitter near the penalty-kick spot over the crossbar.
LEAD DOUBLES: On a counter attack for Rochester, Sinclair hacked down Rochester forward Will Stone. Alertly, Fernandes put the ball down and played Ben Allan into space before the Wolves' defenders could react, and the Lancers midfielder bent his shot in off the post.
DESPERATE TIMES: After watching Dragomir stumble through 75 minutes, Shackleford's inclusion immediately sparked a Buffalo side that had found its urgency following Allan's goal.
Following a threaded pass from Jake Cooper into the box, Shackleford spun away from a defender with his first touch, allowing him to beat Banahene to the ball and deposit his left-footed shot inside the near post.
"We were in desperation mode before the game even started – unfortunately it took us a while to wake up, and when we did that, it wasn't like we were playing great balls, the difference was we were putting in more effort," Butcher said. "I liked when we were playing to feet a lot better – we had some nice combinations and then we would get away from that."
FINAL WORD: "Every loss is a low point, so we've got a bunch of them right now to choose from. This one stings pretty bad because I think we really took it to them in Buffalo and thought we had a good shot here. It's been a season of unfortunate things for us," said Butcher.
STARTING XIs and SUBS
FC BUFFALO: Cameron Hogg; Zach Peterson, Jordan Sinclair, Fox Slotemaker, Braden Scales; Isaiah Barrett, Austin Stout, Jake Cooper, Cameron Emerson, Bayley Winkel; Julien Dragomir. Subs used: Chris Walter, Jon Cary, Mack Roach, Brett Stern, Akean Shackleford.
ROCHESTER: Will Banahene; Anthony Rozzano, Jake Schindler, Alex Harling, Tim Crawford; Antonio Manfut, Ben Allan, August Finn, Rafael Godoi, Lukas Fernandes; Will Stone. Subs used: Jayme Kapinos, Michael Cunningham, Austin Gerber.
NEXT HOME MATCH: FC Buffalo return home to All-High Stadium at 7 p.m. June 30 against the Erie Commodores.