It took FC Buffalo 249 minutes of play last season before they scored their first goal. Although head coach Frank Butcher stressed to his team that a slow start could not happen again in 2018, it's exactly what transpired.
The Fort Pitt Regiment stormed into Buffalo, took their chances well and departed with a 2-0 victory in front of roughly 400 fans at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium on Friday night.
"It's almost like deja vu. I wouldn't say we dominated the game, but I think we had the better chances," Butcher said. "A little mix-up in the back ... you don't want to put the whole game on one play. We didn't finish any chances again."
FC Buffalo hasn't scored in a National Premier Soccer League season opener since 2015, when they beat the Cincinnati Saints, 3-1, at Hamburg High School. The Wolves were shut out by the expansion Rochester River Dogz in 2016, then blanked by the Dayton Dynamo in 2017, both by the score of 1-0.
1-0, Fort Pitt, 56': Fort Pitt's Lucas Godinho broke the scoreless deadlock on a smooth counterattack. Nicholas Kolarac played a long ball forward - inches over the head of FC Buffalo defender Robert Williamson - toward Lamine Balde, who knocked the ball down nicely backward to teammate Anthony Virgara.
His first-touch pass into space connected with a sprinting Godinho, who got a step on a retreating Williamson and sneaked a shot past Jeremy Figler, who will likely want that goal back.
[Watch the video of the goal, via WNY Media, here, beginning with 40:25 left.]
2-0, Fort Pitt, 81': After scoring the first, Godinho played provider on the second. Picking his head up and turning in the midfield, the Brazilian No. 10 - a graduate of Point Park University in 2016 - spotted substitute Marc Alexander's sprint into space.
A well-weighted ball turned into a 50-50 challenge against Williamson, who slid to the turf but was unlucky on the resulting bounce, which fell into Alexander's stride. After a swift cut against the grain to lose Christopher Camilli, Alexander deked a charging Figler and tucked into the open net to seal the win.
"I thought we had much better possession in the second half, then a small breakdown and we find ourselves down, get shifted out of sorts, then down 2-0," noted Butcher. "It snowballed from there."
[Watch the video here, beginning with 14:55 remaining in the game-cast]
A Problem of Continuity
The common crutch after an ugly first match is that the team didn't have enough time to gel in training. While on the road, Fort Pitt had a slight edge because many of its starters - Kolarac, Balde, Virgara, goalkeeper Scott Rissler, defenders Max Flick (a candidate for best NPSL name) and Matt McDyer, and midfielder Tulio Canineu - have played together for years.
With returning leading scorer Akean Shackleford arriving on Friday, Kendell McFayden serving a one-game suspension for his red card in last year's finale and captain Chris Walter slated to miss the bulk - if not all - of the season with a broken collarbone, the Wolves were shorthanded in both attacking and leadership from the start.
Only two starters - Winkel and Jake Cooper - from last season were in the 2018 first XI.
With few other options, Butcher opted to open with a 4-3-3 formation with Winkel at center forward in what often morphed into a 4-5-1 due to FC Buffalo's inability to hold the ball in the midfield. Ill-suited to the lone forward role, Winkel worked hard off the ball to try to find space, but two nimble-yet-big Fort Pitt center backs - McDyer and Ryan Landry - prevented him from finding joy.
"[We didn't] have enough time to gel as a team," Butcher said. "I don't want to completely blame it on that, but Bayley isn't a prototypical center forward, and we were trying to make it work, but we weren't finding him. When we did, it wasn't in really good spots for him."
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The feeling out period between the two teams took the better part of the first half. Possession was sloppy, the hard turf and crowned field at All-High encourages ugly play, and neither team looked anxious to take risks.
Keeping the ball - theoretically the strength of the Wolves' trio of center midfielders, Sammy Wasson, Mitchell Ali and Jake Cooper - was a rare occurrence.
"[Fort Pitt] was aggressive from the start - they pressed our midfield," Williamson explained. "It was the first game of the season for both teams, and everybody is looking to make an impact right away, hustle, and everybody has fresh legs. At times, you're not going to play the way you want to play."
FC Buffalo was lucky not to trail toward the end of the first half, as a Camilli giveaway sparked a Fort Pitt counter in the 38th minute. Godinho played a short pass to Canineu, who sprayed the ball wide to Virgara.
The former Pittsburgh Riverhound (USL) beat Euan Bauld cleanly and served a low cross to the back post for Balde - who completely butchered his finish, skying the ball almost straight up in the air.
Aside from that breakdown, FC Buffalo's defense - Lewis White, Williamson, Bauld and Camilli - broke up several attacks and muted Godinho's creativity through the first 50+ minutes. Considering all four Wolves defenders were making their club debuts, it was a promising sign.
"Euan, Rob, Lewis - I thought our back four was really good," Butcher commented. "Once we started to press, that caused the second goal. I wouldn't want to put that first goal on the defense."
"It's more molding together and getting used to new guys," explained Williamson. "Some guys are coming back from school and haven't been to many practices yet, so we're still trying to find the mix. Obviously the objective is to get clean sheets - that's our goal - but at the end of the day sometimes it's not going to go your way."
Another standout for FC Buffalo was midfielder-forward Isaiah Wilson, a soon-to-be senior at St. Bonaventure, who entered in the 39th minute and immediately injected energy into the side.
"I just tried to come off the bench strong and give my team some extra force going forward, try to contribute to the game," Wilson explained after the match.
Right off the bat in the second half, Wilson tried his luck with a rising shot from the left side that tested Rissler. And seconds after Fort Pitt's second goal, Wilson served a curling cross to Shackleford's head at the back post, then followed the loose ball, cut away from his goal and snapped a left-footed shot that bent inches wide of the far post.
In his first match with FC Buffalo, Wilson had plenty of praise for a crowd that, while not the biggest in club history, brought a steady dose of energy - from the beat of drums to a few second-half flares.
"I love the crowd," Wilson remarked, breaking into a smile for the first time. "They were chanting and keeping the atmosphere good."
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If it gives any encouragement to FC Buffalo fans, who quickly filed out following the second Fort Pitt goal, the Wolves were better in possession and looked dangerous in spurts as the game wound down.
"We were getting some more success in the second half as we started to move it, get off it quicker, spray it wide and get [Fort Pitt] a little more spaced apart, so they were turned around or had to come out and pressure," Williamson explained. "That opened up more spaces."
"When we combined and were creative in the second half, it worked very well - we did very well," he continued. "The goals will come - that's the hard part, sometimes they just don't go in, but I feel like we had some good chances in the second half."
FC Buffalo (4-3-3): Jeremy Figler; Christopher Camilli, Robert Williamson, Euan Bauld, Lewis White; Jake Cooper, Mitchell Ali, Sammy Wasson; Austin Stout, Bayley Winkel, Chris Berardi. Subs used: Isaiah Wilson, Akean Shackleford, J.P. Meibohm, Brett Stern. Unused subs: Steven Casey, Devonte Black, Ali Shawish.
Fort Pitt Regiment (4-1-3-2): Scott Rissler; Mikel Ubeda, Matt McDyer, Ryan Landry, Max Flick; Jacob Gratzer; Anthony Virgara, Nicholas Kolarac, Tulio Canineu; Lucas Godinho, Lamine Balde. Subs used: Marc Alexander, Lucas Canineu, Nick Kalogeris.