FC Buffalo received bad news just a few hours before their rivalry match with the Erie Commodores: captain and all-time appearances leader Chris Walter would miss the match due to yellow card accumulation. There was debate whether his previously served one-game suspension for a red card would erase any of his earlier bookings this season. It wasn't so.
The leadership void was filled aptly by several members of the Wolves in FC Buffalo's 2-1 victory over the Commodores (4-1-2) on Friday in front of the club's biggest home crowd of the season at All-High Stadium.
The loss was Erie's first of the season, tightening the playoff race in the NPSL Great Lakes East Conference. The Commodores have not won in Buffalo since June 7, 2015.
"We got a crushing below not having Chris, our spark plug, our fire, and we talked before the game that everyone needs to pick it up - it's a hard thing to do and we feed off him. We didn't have him today, but everyone stepped up big," said Frank Butcher, FC Buffalo's first-year head coach.
Akean Shackleford put FC Buffalo (3-4-3) in front in the ninth minute, then Julien Dragomir doubled the lead just seconds after entering as a substitute in the 76th. Erie's Ricardo da Silva scorched the back of the net with a 35-yard screamer in the third minute of stoppage time, but the final whistle sounded after the ensuing kickoff.
Although the match produced five yellow cards (but no reds), it was tame compared to previous rivalry tilts. FC Buffalo were more concerned with earning three points and protecting their home turf than getting caught up in the emotions of the game.
"Erie is definitely the fiercest rival, and it feels good to get a win in front of our home fans," said the Wolves' Isaiah Barrett. "They've been hankering for a good season for a lot of years, and I'm happy we were able to get the win, but I know that it's got to be better in years to come."
1-0, FC Buffalo, 9': With Erie playing an offside trap, a ball was chipped over the top of the Commodore defense from just beyond midfield.
While the Erie backs raised their arms to signal the violation on the run of Wolves winger Austin Stout, the assistant referee motioned for play to continue, giving Stout time to pick his head up, take a touch and curl a cross toward the heart of the 18-yard box.
FC Buffalo forward Akean Shackleford had darted inside of the Erie center back, reaching his right foot out to deflect the ball past Jorge Alvarez Prendes and inside the near post.
2-0, FC Buffalo, 76': Substitutions may disrupt the rhythm and organization of teams, and Erie fell victim a half hour into the second stanza.
Seconds after Paul Bracken and Billy Colton checked in for Erie and Julien Dragomir replaced Shackleford, Isaiah Barrett knifed past his defender on the right wing and served a well-timed cross to meet Dragomir's run to the top of the six-yard box.
Just like Shackleford did in the first half, the Romanian was first to the ball, caroming a shot off the ground from close range to solve Prendes. It was Dragomir's second consecutive game in the scoring column, having opened the scoring on the road against Dayton last Sunday.
2-1, FC Buffalo, 90+3': With the Wolves looking certain to keep a clean sheet, a ball was knocked out of the FC Buffalo 18-yard box late in stoppage. Ricardo da Silva, who'd entered for injured Guillermo Lazcano, crushed the ball on a rope into Cameron Hogg's upper-90 from 35 yards away.
The wundergoal will likely go down as one of the best of the entire NPSL season.
*FILL-IN LEADERS: With Walter in street clothes, several members of the Wolves stepped up to make sure the team didn't crumble. Butcher complimented his assistant, John Grabowski, for pushing the right buttons before the match.
"We were a little dead in warmups, Johnny saw it and brought them in and said, 'Hey guys, this is it, let's get this spark going and let's be ready, we don't want to come out dead like we did against Rochester.' Guys bought in."
David Enstrom's abrupt move home to Sweden and Walter's absence meant FC Buffalo was desperate for a competent holding midfielder. This worry was eased by the hunger of a different Kiwi.
"Cam Emerson took [Walter's] spot; he asked for the spot, wanted the spot and was just an animal back there," Butcher explained. Usually deployed as an attacking center mid, the Anderson University Raven was physically imposing against Erie's smallish creative midfielders - Luca Campos and Thaylan Moreira Sanches Silva. Emerson was disciplined in his positioning and not exposed for pace.
Assuming the role of captain was Fox Slotemaker, FC Buffalo's most consistent player this season. Although he's quieter and not as demonstrative as Walter, his organization and composure in the back kept the Wolves from falling into disarray.
"I always like wearing the armband," said Slotemaker, who will attend Old Dominion this fall after three years at the University at Buffalo. "It's a bit more responsibility and I try to be a leader anyway, but having Chris around all season has been great.
"I've learned a lot from him in my two years at FC Buffalo. He's a fantastic leader, he leads by example. I tried to fill his shoes today - he gets everyone amped up for the game, gets everyone ready, and I tried to do that the best I can."
*SHACKLEFORD ON A ROLL: Since he injured his ankle two weeks ago, it seems everything Akean Shackleford has touched has gone into the opposing goal. The junior college striker from Jamaica has tallied four goals in his last three matches, with five in total, despite attempting a rather absurd number of overhead kicks.
"When he's on, he's on," Butcher said of Shackleford. "If he's feeling good and feeling ready to work, it's hard to stop him. It's nice to watch. Every once in a while it might be something a little crazy, but you deal with that crazy because he's getting the results."
"I feel great for [Akean]," said Barrett, a Wilson native who's become one of Shackleford's close friends on the team. "We do play the same position, we play together. It's a joy knowing my partner on the field is working as hard for me as I am for him, and vice versa. It's a beautiful team atmosphere, team chemistry, but I am ecstatic for Akean."
While Shackleford will return to Iowa for his second year at Indian Hills Community College, he has already caught the attention of NCAA Division I scouts.
*FOR THE SITUATION ROOM: FC Buffalo's band of supporters, The Situation Room, may have its quirks, but the group's dedication has created a strong sense of gratitude from the players.
"The feeling you get when you travel all the way to Cleveland or Dayton and see FC Buffalo fans traveling all the way down there, it's insane," remarked Barrett after the match. "Being from Buffalo, it especially rings home with me."
"It's a fantastic feeling - winning a match like this is amazing, especially with the crowd we have," Slotemaker added. "When we scored the second goal and ran over to the crowd, you can see the passion in them - they really wanted this - and we wanted to do it for them.
"It hasn't been an extremely successful season, but that game meant a whole lot to us and a whole lot to the fans, and that's what this is all about."
FC Buffalo: Cameron Hogg; Zach Peterson, Jordan Sinclair, Fox Slotemaker, Braden Scales; Cameron Emerson; Bayley Winkel, Austin Stout, Jake Cooper, Isaiah Barrett; Akean Shackleford. Subs used: Julien Dragomir, Mackenzie Roach, Brett Stern, Nick Szabo.
Erie Commodores: Jorge Alvarez Prendes; Ashley Phillips, Guillermo Lazcano, Shane Wiedt, Marshall Garcia; Reece Daly; Luca Campos, Thaylan Moreira Sanches Silva, Lewis Osborne, Malcolm Shaw; Ezana Kahsay. Subs used: Ricardo da Silva, Paul Bracken, Billy Colton.
WHAT'S NEXT: FC Buffalo travel to Pittsburgh to face last-place Fort Pitt at 2 p.m. July 9, then close the regular season with a home clash against AFC Cleveland on July 14. Part of each ticket sale benefits Westside International Soccer and Jericho Road.