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Buffalo & District Soccer League premier division preview for 2019

On the dawn of another Buffalo & District Soccer League season, the story lines in the premier division sound eerily similar.

BSC Raiders, winners of four of the last five titles, are the team to beat. The squads close behind, BUSS, Amherst Sharpshooters and Lackawanna FCY, continue to shape their roster in an attempt to take down the two-time defending champions. Newly promoted sides try to navigate the large gulf between the championship division and the top flight.

Soho, which struggled with attendance for most of last season, re-formed as a first division team after an admirable run in premier, which meant the Williamsville Willies - relegated after last season's downturn - would remain in the top tier. BSC International and Pendleton United were the duo to earn promotion from the second tier.

Judging by last year's prediction post, we were wrong in some cases - such as Wolfpack (now Wolves), Willies and Celtic United - but also correct in some, such as East Aurora's slip and Raiders' dominance. The intention of this story is to predict the regular season table, not necessarily the playoff winners, but just for kicks, we'll put those at the bottom. (Hey, we're trying to get better for 2019, too).

No. 12: Pendleton United FC

2018 record: 9-2 in championship; lost to BSC Inter in title game.

Major additions: KJ Maldiner (returns), Alfredo Gallo (RVS), Mateo May (BUSS), Domenic Monti (RVS), Parker Shetler (BUSS), Kevin Loftus (RVS).

Major losses: Nick Walker (injury), Sam DelPrince, Ryan Schupp.

Overview: Buoyed by a superb Starpoint High School program, PUFC has zoomed up the ladder of the BDSL, rising from the second division in 2016 with two straight titles, then a runner-up finish last season to earn promotion to the top flight. Attendance and commitment to the squad has been a strength, and those two traits go a long way in the league.

The Lions earn their stripes (OK, lions don't have stripes) with a hard-nosed style and enough balance across the pitch to avoid an obvious weakness for opponents to exploit. Their youth and athleticism have been advantages at the lower levels, but those will be mitigated a little more in premier.

Strengths: Manager Mike Juszczak added depth, especially in the attack, for his club's move to premier. May and Maldiner should alleviate pressure on striker Nick Dumond, while Sam Wagner, Matt Pickard, Max Balko and Marco Ciccarelli can all hold their own. This team is loaded with current NCAA Division III college athletes, so fitness should be an edge.

The serious injury to Walker, a steady center back, was likely the impetus for adding Loftus, who was forced to defend a lot last season with Fredonia - and now again this BDSL season.

Worries: They're placed in the relegation zone not because they're a bad team, but because of the strength and experience of the rest of premier. If the Willies couldn't stay up on their own merit, then why would Pendleton? DelPrince was one of the more underrated goalkeepers in the entire BDSL, and the spotlight will be on Gallo - who returns from a torn ACL - to rise to the challenge.

[Related: Premier division previews in 2017 and 2016, too]

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No. 11: Southtowns FPFC

2018 record: 3-6-2, ninth place.

Major additions: Colin Archibald, Will McGowan, Issak Sabtow, Josh Barker.

Major losses: Luis "Beto" Hernandez, Steve Fox, Bill Littere, Matt Burke.

Overview: The magic of Beto, who's since moved back to Los Angeles, went a long way toward keeping Southtowns in premier, as the forward accounted for 37 percent of the team's goals. One thing's for sure - SFPFC has gotten younger, plucking at least three players off high school all-star teams.

The earlier Southtowns can develop chemistry, the more likely they are to avoid the drop. Their best bet is to defend first and try to generate goals off counter attacks or set pieces.

Strengths: Southtowns wants to be tough to play against. Their tenacity and physicality might be their two biggest strengths, with Phil Pinzone, Will Smith, Troy Weber and Andrew McDonagh all known for their relentless approach. Scott MacLean's squad built to frustrate the opposition and get under their skin, with perhaps a little more individual ability than they're given credit for.

Worries: Hernandez's seven goals and three assists will be tough to replace, and it will likely be done by committee. Sabtow has spent the spring playing against top youth competition in the ECNL, and he'll be expected to produce and perhaps form a strong partnership with Kabura Elias. Maybe they'll prove me wrong with their speed, but that's not a striker tandem I'd be excited about in premier.

Littere, a longtime Southtowns/Lakeshore member, will be replaced in goal by inexperienced Ralph Grizanti, who approaches high school graduation from Wilson. The latter will be busy this summer.

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No. 10: BSC International

2018 record: 9-0-2 in championship, won title game.

Major additions: Rahim Melon, Abdi Sabtow, Mo Hussein.

Major losses: Devonte Black and Robert Williamson (both to Raiders).

Overview: Inter did not suffer defeat in the 2018 league campaign and postseason, with Robert Williamson and Devonte Black combining for a tremendous 11 goals and 12 assists. The bad news to begin the offseason, however, was that the Buffalo State pair made the move to play with BSC Raiders, further strengthening premier's best team and leaving newly promoted Inter immediately behind the eight-ball.

Inter was more than just Williamson and Black, though. Managers Brian Minehan and Ross Karipidis implement a high pressure style while maintaining some organization, especially defensively.

Strengths: Once Sabtow (four games) and Hussein (one game) return from their suspensions that carry over from last season, Inter will be a handful to defend. Jenaro Akeh, Kenny Anderson, Lorne Maxime, Ayoub Zekraoui and the two BUSS transfers all can take on defenders and create chances. Opponents will have to respect their pace, and if caught off guard, upsets could be brewing.

Inter isn't undersized, either, as Karipidis and Melon form premier's biggest center back pairing, and Mo Diyani - hurt for almost all of last season - is a giant option up front. Former Medaille keeper Brian Arcara gives his team stability at the back end.

Worries: The team is filled with cantankerous personalities, and when things go awry, watch out. Will they be able to claw back from deficits? Will a squad laden with attackers be committed to defensive responsibilities against better foes? Can they really withstand the loss of their two best players to avoid relegation? These are a lot of worries.

It would be a surprise if someone other than Southtowns, Inter and Pendleton were relegated, but it's anyone's guess who's the best of this bottom three.

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No. 9: Clarence Yotes

2018 record: 3-6-1, 10th place.

Major additions: Asani Samuels (Soho), Ryan Eaton (DSC), Christian Ndagano (Great Lakes Africa).

Major losses: Mo Channer (BUSS), Bubba Ralyea.

Overview: After two straight seasons with fourth-place finishes (and one Tehel Cup win), Clarence took a significant step back in 2018. To make matters worse, the Coyotes lost their leading scorer, Channer, to BUSS. Obviously, if in attendance and motivated, Asani Samuels - a former pro for the Rochester Rhinos - is a giant upgrade, but his impact for Soho last year was minimal, so the jury is out.

Overall, there's a good bit of uncertainty here: The Coyotes could sneak into the postseason or face relegation.

Strengths: If Clarence has any consistent edge, it's their home field at Clarence Town Park. Let's face it - no one wants to play there. The vast majority of premier teams use turf as their surface, so the uneven ground and long grass in Clarence Center is a good equalizer.

The Yotes have solid, experienced players that have been committed to the team - like Canisius College alumni J.J. Hughes, A.C. LaFlore, Brendan Brody, Andrea Conte and Chris Berardi - while Len Previte continues to defy Father Time in goal.

Worries: Clarence finishes May and begins June with a brutal stretch - Sharpshooters, Raiders, BUSS. That is not desirable, and three losses could derail the season. Personnel questions abound, too: How often will Gary Boughton be available? How is the depth of talent? If Sutherland, Samuels and Ndagano total more than 10 goals, the 'Yotes should be safe.

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No. 8: Williamsville Willies

2018 record: 2-8-1, 11th place. Stayed up thanks to Soho's drop.

Major additions: Graham Harris (Sharpshooters), Connor Wilkinson, Andrew Bennett, Ben Noel (NMB), Vinny Chimento (EAFC), Rick Fleck (Wolfpack).

Major losses: Jeff Bellinger, Andrew Looney, Sam Kinerk.

Overview: The Willies will want to forget last season's letdown as quickly as possible. Maybe knocking Raiders out of Tehel Cup in 2017 bred some arrogance, as the Williamsville-based team that seemed to raise its level against the league's best looked tepid, scoring the second fewest goals in premier last season.

Not many premier teams improved as much as the Willies, though, as some Harris family recruiting saw center back Graham Harris join his brother Ian, who enters his senior year at Mercyhurst. Two Lakers teammates - Wilkinson and Bennett - are immediate starters and major upgrades, complementing returnees Noah Bachwitz, Noah Smith, Thomas Jackson and Jackson Retzer.

Strengths: Willies are young, deep and brash, and they'll be motivated to rebound. The back four is now a strength with Graham Harris as one of the league's best ball-winners and Bennett, a proven collegiate talent. Their presence should allow Retzer to move forward a bit to wreak havoc in the midfield, as well as provide insurance for absences/injuries.

Ian Harris can be one of premier's best midfielders, and Chimento's skill set - moving the ball quickly and intelligently - is a perfect foil.

Worries: Did they add enough goal scoring? We're not sure. Bonetto and newcomers Noel and Fleck can all finish, while Bachwitz - a BDSL Rumors all-premier preseason pick - and Wilkinson can produce from the midfield.

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No. 7: Celtic United

2018 record: 3-6-2, eighth place.

Major additions: Vinny Cancilla, Andy Tiedt, Ryan Keller, Pablo Ordonez, Josh Hall, Kyle Wiatrowski, Matt Burke.

Major losses: Mitchell Ali (injury), Sammy Wasson (injury).

Overview: After rating Celtic United too high before last season, picking them seventh is a more conservative approach. Attendance has long been the team's Achilles heel, and there's little to indicate more buy-in for 2019. You simply cannot win in premier by showing up with fewer than 11 players (and it's also not remotely fun to play with that many in 80+ degree heat).

Celtic benefited the most from Soho's drop, poaching five of their best players. Coincidentally, Soho also struggled with attendance last season, so who knows what to expect.

Strengths: Adding Pablo Ordonez, Josh Hall and Ryan Keller means boatloads of individual talent have come through the door, and there's already plenty in stock. Even if he's past his prime, Andy Tiedt is a rare target forward, while Kyle Wiatrowski is a versatile piece. In sheer talent alone, this is easily a playoff team.

Worries: United were bit hard by the injury bug, which knocked out the team's two best players - both center midfielders - in Ali and Wasson. Most of Celtic's additions strengthen the midfield and attack, which will mean thin numbers in the back four - or players used out of position. Working in all of the new pieces harmoniously might take some time, too.

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No. 6: Wolves FC

2018 record: 4-5-2, sixth place. Lost in semifinals to BSC Raiders.

Major additions: Joe Vucic (EAFC), Dylan Begany (Roos), Nate Griffiths (Soho), Joe Farrell (Grand Island), Colin Shoemaker (EAFC), Kyle Kleckner (EAFC).

Major losses: Rick Fleck (Willies), Chris Moonan, Jason Curry.

Overview: 2018 proved you should never count out the Wolfpack, err, now the Wolves. In Chris Moonan's swansong as manager, the gritty team rose above expectations, squeaked into the playoffs despite a -10 goal differential, then pulled off the biggest upset in recent years, shocking BUSS in the quarterfinals in overtime.

Under goalkeeper/manager Andy Renkas, Wolves will be significantly better man for man. Upgrades have arrived all over the pitch - Begany pairs with Terpin for a top-notch center back pairing, Shoemaker, Farrell, Chris Griffiths and Kyle Kleckner all help the midfield, and Vucic is the goal scorer for which Wolves were desperate. Prying him from BUSS just before the season could be the difference in making the playoffs again.

Strengths: Man for man, they're considerably improved over last year. Although it might be necessary at times, Wolves won't have to rely on the 10-behind-the-ball style, as there's greater potential for possession and chance creation. Some of the bite that's characteristic of the team endures, and Renkas is a superb shot stopper in net.

Worries: While he'd be fighting for minutes with BUSS, Vucic will see all the minutes he can handle leading the line for Wolves. There's a burden on him to score, though, which he's done well historically as a centerpiece for East Aurora before their overhaul. Perhaps the only other major worry is age; Wolves are among the oldest sides in premier, with zero players in college or high school.

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No. 5: Queenston FC

2018 record: 6-2-3, fourth place. Lost to Lackawanna in quarterfinals.

Major additions: Jared Burns (NMB), Ross Suitor (Niagara FC), Joey Zachary.

Major losses: George Todino, Joe Conjerti (injury).

Overview: The Parliament put past mediocrity behind them and surged into the postseason in 2018, and the Niagara County boys will look to build on that success this summer. Bringing back Ross Suitor was a coup, as the Swiss Army Knife excelled for the fluorescent yellow in 2017. Burns and Zachary are two young, exciting attackers, joining Jacob Westadt, Trey Buscaglia and Bryce Schiltz in a dynamite quintet.

This is a dark horse top-four team if their attendance is above average.

Strengths: The decision to move center back Adam Winkworth up front last year paid dividends, as the aerial presence potted six goals, good for second on the team behind fleet-footed Mahmoud Kassem. With more attacking options available this year, Winkworth will be a luxury piece.

John Netter remains a top-tier goalkeeper, Eric Albrecht is one of the best under-the-radar players in premier and Marcus D'Aguiar should make a compelling case for postseason recognition. Troy Brady, if he's around for a full season, could challenge for the league lead in scoring.

Worries: Queenston had better collect points early in the season, as the campaign closes with BUSS, Sharpshooters, Clarence and BSC Raiders. If they take care of business in the first seven matches, slip-ups can be weathered without sacrificing a playoff berth. But if six points are needed from those final four matches to get into the playoffs, I wouldn't bet on them.

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No. 4: Lackawanna FCY

2018 record: 6-3-2, fifth place. Lost to Sharpshooters in semifinals.

Major additions: Pa Lu, Zak Shaibi, Bediako Swan, Abdullahi Hussein (BUSS).

Major losses: Ali Shawish, Layth Alaekada, Andy Queen.

Overview: This might be the most controversial of picks in our prediction, but we like what Taha Omar did in building this Lackawanna team. Even though Ali Shawish, who ran away with the scoring title last year, bolted for Sharpshooters, reinforcements come in Zak Shaibi, Bedi Swan, Pa Lu and Ali Mohamed. Defenders won't look forward to games against FCY this year.

After getting dumped 8-2 in the season opener, Lackawanna was thumped by Sharpshooters again in last year's semifinals, proof they were still not quite on par with the BDSL's top teams. That's the hurdle again for Omar's team in 2019. But if you like high-scoring soccer matches, go watch Lackawanna this year. (Plus, watching games at Lehigh can be enjoyable; it's just not as fun for the opposition).

Strengths: Mateo Escobar is an elegant footballer. Zak Shaibi is probably the quickest dribbler in the league. Ali Mohamed has been a revelation for FC Buffalo since returning to the city. If Pa Lu can stay healthy, he will produce. Nageeb Ali just scores goals, and BDSL Rumors thinks highly enough of Bediako Swan - the new head coach at Daemen College - that they've already pegged him as a first-team preseason forward. The pedigree is there.

Worries: Simply put, Lackawanna will have a tough time defending. Saleman Salim has the potential to be great, and if need be, James Kpainay can put in work on the back line. Beyond those two and hard-nosed Ahmad Adil, there's not much. Sammy Albakri might rise to the occasion and compensate for a thin defensive corps, but that might be too big an ask.

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No. 3: Amherst Sharpshooters

2018 record: 8-1-2, second place. Lost in finals to Raiders.

Major additions: Ali Shawish (Lackawanna FCY), Kyle Hofschneider (Beast City), Theo Pencic, Taha Ahmed.

Major losses: Graham Harris (Willies), Jon Cary.

Overview: The Lawler brothers were wise to focus on youth and athleticism, as the core that propelled the side to great success - Sharpshooters are the only non-Raiders team to win the league over the last five years - is aging. Amherst ran into that BSC buzz-saw in a championship game that was not close, despite tying Raiders during the regular season.

Rumors' preseason all-premier pick Andrew Crawford is a monster in the midfield who's capable of helping out defensively, while Shawish will look to continue his absurd goal-scoring form from last season with his new club. Kyle Hofschneider, cousin of Amherst's leading scorer last year, Justin, will play for Niagara University in the fall and is blessed with an eye for goal.

Strengths: Sharpshooters are now young, fast and can score. They might have too many forward options. Any match that's an offensive shootout will favor Amherst, which will come at you in waves. The midfield is stacked, too, with high school player of the year Ishaan Kashyap joined by omnipresent Cody Rouse, industrious Zack Schwartz and Ahmed, who is the early favorite to succeed Kashyap in the awards category.

Worries: Amherst tied for the second-fewest goals allowed last season, but repeating that stat will be a challenge without center back Graham Harris, who joined his brother with the Willies. Drew Braun, Ricky Martinez and Matt Campana are three key pieces on defense, but there's not much depth to protect acrobatic goalkeeper James Quinn. Will Riley Wagner, a soon-to-be senior at Starpoint, rise to the occasion?

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No. 2: BUSS

2018 record: 7-2-2, third place. Lost in quarterfinals to Wolves.

Major additions: Bryce Tramuta (Rampart), Mo Channer (Clarence), Al Franjoine (Soho).

Major losses: Adonis Pimienta-Penalver, Abdi Sabtow (BSC Inter).

Overview: Last year's championship dreams were shattered by plucky Wolves in the quarterfinals, not the ending envisioned by managers Bobby Calvaneso and Polo Suazo.

But credit BUSS for another offseason of aggressive recruiting, which netted three additions they hope will propel the orange above Raiders. Their intentions were to get bigger and more physical to match-up with the league favorites, as well as to find an upgrade in net.

With Mo Channer, who scored seven goals for Clarence last season, now in the fold, BUSS can trot out a fearsome forward duo of Kyle Clifford and the newcomer, which is essentially an attacking battering ram with speed. If opposing defenses are either undersized or big and slow, they're immediately at a disadvantage. Former Canisius and current FC Buffalo goalkeeper Bryce Tramuta is a strong all-around presence despite his lack of height; he's poised, smart in leaving his line and sure handed.

Strengths: Franjoine is a gigantic addition to the midfield, as his work rate, technical ability and two-way play complement the creative presence of Mo Musse. Wes Rider, Josh Hammer, Christian Jungong, Hunter Walsh and Andre Torrico are precisely the kind of high-energy, active players who can press and force turnovers, which is essentially BUSS' calling card.

Worries: Hammer and Torrico are young, talented defenders, but will the wheels soon fall off Suazo, the ageless wonder who made a smooth transition to center back? The co-manager is very smart and a leader, but the bastion of young forwards in the division will pose a threat. Continuity can be a concern with BUSS, too, even though it seems that area has been addressed better than in previous years.

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No. 1 BSC Raiders

2018 record: 9-0-1, first place. Won championship over Sharpshooters.

Major additions: Robert Williamson (BSC International), Devonte Black (BSC International).

Major losses: Bobby Ross, Brett Stern, Matt Waddington.

Overview: The BSC Raiders dynasty is still alive and thriving, as Rocky Palmeiro's group competed in both the USASA Amateur Cup and the Werner Fricker Open Cup, the two Region I tournaments for which they qualified by winning the Tehel Cup and premier division title. (They won the regular season title, too, in an undefeated, treble-winning campaign for the record books).

Credit Anthony Johnson, who took over leadership and accountability duties among the players, for galvanizing a team whose focus began to waver ever so slightly before 2018. The taste of regional amateur competition should motivate Raiders to earn future chances to take down foes such as Christos FC and Yinz United, the two Maryland-based sides that knocked them out.

Strengths: Everywhere, but the defense is exceptional with Rob Williamson added to a group that already included Casey Derkacz, Johnson and Kyle Rogers. They simply don't concede goals in the run of play, and FC Buffalo keeper Jeremy Figler tends goal behind them as further insurance.

Although Williamson, the floppy-haired Buffalo State alum, will have to serve a three-game suspension to open the season, he'll be a difference maker upon his return. The usual standouts - Kendell McFayden, Chris Walter, Ryan Walter, Rudy Pikuzinski III and John Grabowski -  all return, too, with lively Colin O'Keefe a perfect complement for that experienced group.

Worries: Attendance and a little overconfidence could trouble the side, which could make some roster additions early in the season to bolster depth. With several players doing double duty with FC Buffalo, there's always concerns of injury and schedule conflicts. But there's really no weaknesses here on the field, as Raiders' punishing style and competitive streak have no match in the premier division.

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PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS

First-round byes: BSC Raiders, BUSS.

No. 3 Amherst Sharpshooters vs. No. 6 Wolves
No. 4 Lackawanna FCY vs. No. 5 Queenston

No. 1 BSC Raiders vs. No. 5 Queenston
No. 2 BUSS vs. No. 3 Amherst Sharpshooters

Final: BSC Raiders vs. BUSS

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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