The second tier of the Buffalo & District Soccer League was fascinating to watch this year, especially if you don't like goals.
BDSL's championship division was so rugged, physical and defensive-minded that, on average, fewer than three goals (2.79) were scored in each game, compared to 4.3 per match in premier.
While this stat might prove maddening for goal-craving onlookers, the lack of scoring has also meant that blowouts were sparse - a good omen for an entertaining postseason.
With the quarterfinal round of games running July 30, here's our look at the match-ups:
Teams with quarterfinal byes: Southtowns Family Practice FC, Wolfpack
Last meeting: 3-0, Williamsville, on July 9
Checking in on the Willies: We knew our preseason favorite would pull their act together at some point, but unfortunately for Derek Colburn's side, the run up the table came too late to secure a first-round bye.
Still, Williamsville won their last six league games by an aggregate score of 18-3, while also advancing to the quarterfinals of the Tehel Cup before falling to premier side Yemen Elite.
You don't have to go too far down the alphabet to see Willies' top producers, as pacy winger Yohan Andraud (six assists), top producer Jeff Bellinger (six goals, five assists), Ohio Northern's Noah Bachwitz and rising star Justin Bonetto all pack a punch. Mercyhurst defender Ian Harris is the team's defensive standout, complemented by Andrew Looney and Stephen Soos.
Goalkeepers Jason Harris and Noah Smith are both solid, with the latter also able to contribute on the field. Losing Matt Keating to injury gives the best-crested BDSL side one fewer attacking option than they'd like, but there's enough firepower remaining.
Unheralded players to appreciate: Sam Kinerk (No. 99) and Eric Steinwachs (No. 25)
Checking in on Niagara FC: Niagara FC sneaked into the playoffs by one goal (!), edging Lykan FC in the goal-differential category. The six-seed's nine goals for the season were surpassed by a handful of BDSL teams' single-game production, but consistent lockdown defense and a sterling campaign from goalkeeper Jeremy Kraska were enough to offset the scoring doldrums.
Managers Nick Colao and Ryan O'Keefe benefited from the late-season attendance of Cesar Carlin, the soon-to-be senior at Wilson High School. The FC Buffalo Academy striker scored in each of Niagara's last two wins, skyrocketing the Blues up the table.
Queenston transfer Ross Suitor (ex-St. Lawrence University) is the side's unquestioned top player, while defender Liam McIntosh is as gritty as they come. The scoring boots of Colao and Mike Thompson mean Willies can't simply ignore everyone except Carlin and Suitor.
Unheralded players to appreciate: Karl Albrecht (No. 3), Will Manory (No. 12)
Bold prediction: Is it bold if you take the favorite in comfortable fashion? Probably not. Still, 3-1 to the Willies.
Last meeting: 2-1, Beast City, on July 9
Checking in on Panthers: It was almost unthinkable that Panthers would need a win on the final day of the regular season to clinch a playoff berth, but after a 4-0-1 start, the promoted first-division side fell into a mid-summer slumber, going 0-4-1 in the next five-game stretch before relegating OP Alliance and nabbing the fourth seed in a 3-1 win.
While it was anticipated that Panthers' trio of youth additions would galvanize an older roster, it was the steady hands (and feet) of Al Franjoine and Mark Howlett that carried the squad, with the former registering six goals and the latter potting two in the crucial finale against Alliance. Midfielder Francesco Cardillo remains one of the elite players in championship, while keeper Matt Smith won't be beaten easily.
Injuries to key players such as Dave Tredo and Ben Bickel, as well as reliance on players regularly commuting from Jamestown left Panthers in a numbers lurch throughout the season. Considering Panthers showed up to their first-division final with 10 players last season - and still won - it would be silly to rule them out of a postseason run.
Unheralded players to appreciate: Justin Bigham (No. 4) and Kurt Schulz (No. 19)
Checking in on Beast: Beast are essentially the polar opposite of Panthers, as Ben Hall's squad boasts the cream of the crop of young players in the area.
Striker Noah Keem (headed to Daemen College), midfielder Nemo Simic (headed to Buffalo State) and Cameron Law (headed to RPI) are standouts, while Aidan Callahan (St. Lawrence University) might be the division's best defender.
Adding Tony Roncone, another young attacker, late in the campaign took some of the scoring burden off Keem, whose younger brother, Joey, suffered a season-ending injury early in the summer.
Beast can play at a pace that should trouble Panthers, especially on the fast-playing turf of Sweet Home, even if the lower seed's depth is a bit of a question mark.
Unheralded players to appreciate: Scott Pannullo (No. 11), Sam Rodriguez (GK)
Bold prediction: It's tough to bet against Panthers' guile and wisdom, but it will be Beast that move on, 2-1.