In the unstable climate of men's semi-professional soccer, FC Buffalo's perseverance through eight straight seasons in the National Premier Soccer League is remarkable.
AFC Cleveland - the 2016 NPSL champions - folded after a tumultuous 2017. The Fort Pitt Regiment, the Wolves' foe Friday (7 p.m., All-High Stadium, $8), opted to take the 2016 season off to reorganize.
Even though FC Buffalo hasn't experienced the dramatic rise of Detroit City FC, it's avoided the fate of long forgotten sides like Zanesville (Ohio) and Sparta (Michigan).
The Wolves have survived despite the squeeze of more regional competition. NPSL expansion to both Syracuse and Rochester, in their second and third seasons, respectively, has heightened the competition for talent; long gone are the days when FC Buffalo's player pool touched Syracuse University or the Rochester Rhinos' developmental prospects. Had a Niagara Falls team debuted in 2018 as rumored, vying for players would have reached an unprecedented level.
Nevertheless, FC Buffalo - guided by owner Nick Mendola and head coach Frank Butcher - finished 2017 on a high note, taking 13 points from its final six matches, closing the campaign with three straight wins (Erie, Fort Pitt and Cleveland).
"We started off horrible and finished off the best team in the league," said Bayley Winkel, a returning winger and fan favorite. "That's what I remember - the second half of the season, enjoying it, winning. I hope the whole season can be like that."
Even with the winning record (five wins, four losses, three draws), FC Buffalo finished fifth out of six teams in the competitive Midwest Region East Conference, a reflection to how poor the club began last year.
"I feel like I've had unfinished business here: I want to make playoffs," Winkel added. "It's been a good club - Nick's treated us great, the coaching staff has treated us great, it's close to home which is very convenient, we're put up in nice places - it's just a great club to be a part of."
Beyond Winkel, several other players will be familiar to FC Buffalo fans. His college teammate, Jake Cooper, was a first-choice center midfielder for the Wolves last season. Few players in the league can distribute - both short and long - with Cooper's consistency.
Kendell McFayden returns for a sixth season with the club, even though he'll have to wait until next weekend to debut due to a suspension carrying over from last season. Chris Walter, the Wolves' undisputed captain, will miss much - if not all - of the season due to a broken collarbone.
Striker Akean Shackleford, who took the league by storm in the second half of last season, will arrive in Buffalo on Friday; it's uncertain to what extent he'll feature in the opener, but the Southern Methodist University-bound attacker has plenty of incentive for a productive summer.
Unsurprisingly, Butcher is thrilled with the commitment to the club.
"One of the best things coming in is having as many returners as we do," the second-year Wolves head coach said. "Pretty much every guy who didn't graduate, and even some of the guys who did graduate still came back, that speaks really well for the setup we had last year and how we ended the season."
Probable starting keeper Jeremy Figler, St. Bonaventure midfielder Isaiah Barrett, Duquesne midfielder Austin Stout and forward Brett Stern, former Canisius midfielder Chris Berardi, Niagara keeper Steven Casey, former pro Gary Boughton and Canisius defender Nick Szabo have all suited up for FC Buffalo in the past and grace the roster this season.
If there's one area in which FC Buffalo needs to rebuild - and rebuild fast - it's the back four. Gone is tough center back Fox Slotemaker, who wrapped up his college career at Old Dominion last fall following the University at Buffalo's demise as a program. Jordan Sinclair, Zach Peterson and Jon Cary - as well as holding center mid David Enstrom - did not return. Walter's injury hurts here, too.
Butcher is hopeful that three of the offseason signings - Scots Lewis White and Euan Bauld from Cape Breton University, the Canadian national collegiate champions, and Buffalo State center back Robert Williamson - can smooth the transition.
"Euann and Lewis are fantastic in the back - I think it's going to be hard to get by them," Butcher said. "Robert has been here for two weeks, and I think he's a huge find for us. Coming from a D3 program, he's definitely got D1 talent. Our back line is going to be real tough."
Also intriguing is Chris Camilli, a youngster who represented Venezuela internationally at the U-17 level and developed with the academy of Serie A side Cagliari in Italy.
A crop of standout NCAA Division III players from local colleges should also see time. Mitchell Ali (Medaille) could carve out a starting role in the middle of the park alongside Sammy Wasson (Buffalo State), one of the more tidy technical players in Buffalo. Speedy Ali Shawish and decorated outside back Devonte Black join Williamson and Wasson as current and former Buffalo State Bengals on the roster.
Fort Pitt Preview
Flash back to last year's opener, where missed opportunities were rued after a 1-0 home-opening loss to the Dayton Dynamo (who are taking the year off to prepare to become a professional side). Butcher has stressed repeatedly that the Wolves cannot afford the same first result.
"I hope we don't get some bad bounces [Friday]," Butcher said. "We controlled that first game but lost on a penalty kick, and missed a few chances that later in the year we would have definitely finished. I'm hoping to impress upon the guys that we need a quick start."
Continuity is an issue for virtually all NPSL clubs in May, where there are precious few chances to train with a full squad before games begin.
"Guys' exams have seemed to go real late this year; most of our guys showed up Monday, giving us three full sessions before we have to play," the head coach said.
"It's different because last year we had almost a built-in group with the UB guys who came in. Our chemistry was a little more set, but I was a little unsure how the league was going to go," Butcher continued. "We're not quite as together coming into the season teamwork wise, but at the same time I think I know what it takes to win in this league, and I've tried to address that more in the early training sessions."
The home opener has a little extra meaning for Winkel, Cooper and their RMU teammate Keane McIvor, if he's cleared to play in time. The Regiment was naturally one of three clubs Winkel rattled off that he's looking forward to facing.
"For us, we live in Pittsburgh, we know the [Fort Pitt] coach, we know some of the guys there and we look forward to playing them. We had some good luck against them last year," he explained.
"Obviously Erie since the fans are so into it, and I've gotten accustomed to 'Hate Erie' as well. Playing Rochester again - they had a weird vibe going on there, which was kind of cool, but the way it happened, I'd like to get a little revenge."
The Regiment, led by returning gaffer John Kowalski, has a roster of just 16 players on the NPSL website. Traveling numbers could be a serious challenge for the visitors in Friday's clash.
FINAL WORD: "The home opener is going to be fun - we're expecting a lot of people out there," said Cooper. "We just want to get the season started, and started on the right foot."