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Better, but not quite enough: FC Buffalo 2019 post-mortem

2019 is a difficult season to wrap up for FC Buffalo. There were highs: a 10th anniversary trip to Germany, where the National Premier Soccer League team became the first to play a match in a foreign country, as well as a meaningful friendly against FC St. Pauli, a second-division Bundesliga side who became the highest-profile opponent to play here in at least the last three decades.

But the lows were there, too. The Wolves missed the NPSL playoffs for the sixth-consecutive season, with Cleveland and Rochester representing the division. Road doldrums plagued Frank Butcher's squad again, as the 1-3-1 record away from home - including a miserable 4-1 defeat to Pittsburgh, the Hotspurs' lone victory of the season - evened out a strong 3-1-1 home campaign.

Here's a segmented look at what went right and what went wrong during FC Buffalo's 4-4-2, fourth-place season.

3 things that went well

• Those five preseason matches against foreign sides, which even included a win against a young team from Borussia Dortmund, were invaluable for a few reasons: they celebrated a decade of the club's existence, not an easy feat in the volatile world of amateur men's soccer, but also created indelible memories for a host of players and coaches with Buffalo roots or ties.

By participating in the Dortbunt Festival and playing two matches against FC St. Pauli sides, the Wolves players grappled with issues like diversity, inclusiveness and addressing injustice, topics both connected to the soccer world but also spanning far beyond. St. Pauli's traveling contingent of supporters to Buffalo was impressive, which many of the Wolves appreciated after the exhibition.

[Related: Why FC St. Pauli matters beyond soccer | FCSP's visit a great day for Buffalo soccer]

FC Buffalo's players, in white, watch FC St. Pauli engage with their fans after the match. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

• Forwards Nevado Elliott (Alderson Broaddus) and Kieran Toland (ex-St. Bonaventure) both earned All-East Conference recognition for the Midwest Region.

The former, a Jamaican striker with an industrious work rate, a knack for finding open players in dangerous spots and a committed teammate, may not have posted eye-popping statistics (two goals, four assists), but he was a difference maker consistently. Had he been cleared for the season-opener against Rochester, the dismal result could have been avoided.

Kieran Toland, in white, eyes a header against Erie on the road. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Toland, in his second season with FC Buffalo, embraced a forward role even though it wasn't his natural position (Toland played four years at center midfield for the Bonnies). The Scot paced the team with five goals - three against bottom-feeder Syracuse - but his technical ability, understanding of the game and high-level experience paid dividends.

• FC Buffalo found a style of play that not only fit their personnel but also generated an attractive brand of soccer (except for the matches against Midwest Region winner Cleveland SC, at least).

The coaching staff's 3-5-2 formation meant significant responsibility for the three center backs - Chris Walter, Josh Read and Robert Williamson - but also better possession in the midfield and chances for wingers such as Colin O'Keefe and Hunter Walsh.

The talents of soon-to-be Buffalo State senior O'Keefe, in particular, were suited to the scheme, and he was the Wolves' most dynamic two-way player in several matches this summer.

The Wolves scored goals, too, with the season total of 18 - including 11 at home - ranking third in the division. Toland, O'Keefe and goalkeeper Bryce Tramuta joined Walter as fan favorites, and chemistry appeared quite strong, thanks in part to the team's longer time together in light of the Germany trip. Veteran Kendell McFayden even took the team to play paintball after the season had concluded.

3 things that went poorly

• If advancing to the playoffs is the achievement that will attract fans to the club - as many around the organization believe - then FC Buffalo still has work to do. Since the Wolves made their first playoffs in 2013, their composite record shows 31 wins, 25 losses and 14 ties - which isn't shabby, and it underscores how difficult it is, and how little margin for error there is, to make the NPSL postseason.

But still, that's six straight seasons with no playoffs - and nary a postseason win in club history - and fan attendance has generally been stagnant; the odd match will attract 800 fans, but the average date will see about 350-500 supporters in the stands of All-High Stadium.

Head coach Frank Butcher expressed his frustration with low fan turnout early in the season when Mexican reserve side Monarcus Morelia came to town, and even when the club reeled off three straight home wins, all shutouts, with a combined score of 10-0, the stands failed to fill in substantially.

FC Buffalo and Monarcas Morelia players pose for a picture after Friday's match. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

Looking back, it was an honest reaction from someone who's been involved in Buffalo-area soccer since his youth, and while Butcher has repeatedly shown gratitude for The Situation Room, the small-but-enthusiastic supporters group in the west section of the All-High stands, it's an admission that the greater Buffalo soccer community seems reluctant to latch on and back its local club.

Is it because FC Buffalo doesn't have professional players and isn't in a pro league? That it can't sell beer at All High? That there's too many competing summer festivals and events in a city that's suddenly become cool? That Buffalo's soccer participants would prefer to play rather than watch?

There might not be one single answer to why the soccer community seems largely indifferent to FC Buffalo, but the above questions are surely factors.

The Situation Room banner waves in the stands of All-High Stadium during the 2019 FC Buffalo season. (Ben Tsujimoto/Buffalo News)

• FC Buffalo's starting XI was very good in 2019, but there was virtually no depth. Luca Ziegler's return to Germany mid-season was a turning point, as the two-way, left-footed player was very good in the early matches. But aside from Taner Bay's moment of ball-striking brilliance to shock Erie, bench impact was negligible.

The cast of Niklas Breunung, Jack Atkinson, Filip Johansson, Lewis Dye and Martin Minuzzi - all players from outside Buffalo that were housed for the summer - was entirely unexceptional. Not one of that crew could instantly change a game or fill in seamlessly for a weekly starter which, in a league where seven substitutes may be used and off-the-field commitments can deplete a game-day 18, is devastating.

• When Butcher first took the head coaching job three years ago, he handled the "should you build your team from the local player pool only?" question with aplomb. This strategy is simply not that easy.

Manu Cavazzoli would have been a massive boost to FC Buffalo this summer. (Ben Tsujimoto/News file photo)

Competition for the best homegrown players is fierce; Ezana Kahsay (International Prep/Akron, chosen to Mid-Atlantic Best XI) and Troy Brady (Grand Island/Canisius) opted to play elsewhere this summer, as did the cream-of-the-crop college players, say Canisius' Alessio Atzori, Niagara's Luca Pacheco and St. Bonaventure's Isaac Boamah, to name a few.

Manu Cavazzoli, who trained much of the summer with FC Buffalo but never suited up for a match, would have been a game-changing No. 6 for a team that needed bite. Carl Kennedy, one of the two starting holding midfielders for the Wolves, improved mightily from the first game to the finale, but pales overall to the Italian.

Probably five of those six would have started on the 2019 Wolves, with Pacheco an instant-offense type off the bench. If this caliber of player chooses to play elsewhere, then you're left with the middle tier of Buffalo-bred talent, which is mostly solid to above-average NCAA Division III players.

But if there's one thing to be gleaned from social media, it's that many in the soccer community, especially in the upper divisions of the Buffalo & District Soccer League, believe that a team constructed solely from local talent would not only draw more fans, but have success in the NPSL.

The High Point

The 2-0 home shutout of the Erie Commodores was the regular-season pinnacle for FC Buffalo, who out-prepared and out-played a rival club that's historically had considerable success against the Wolves. But for the third time in four years, FCB took four points from the two-game season series with the Commodores.

BN Soccer's FCB MVP

Toland, with honorable mention to O'Keefe and Elliott. The former St. Bonaventure man's second stint with the Wolves was a vast improvement over his first, as the Scot looked fit and hungry, and his teammates gravitated toward his personality and leadership. Along with his strike partner Elliott, Toland earned Best XI honors for the Midwest Region East Conference.

Spending the winter and spring with Mousehole AFC in Cornwall, England, certainly contributed to his form, and Toland is expected to head back overseas to continue pursuing a professional soccer career.

Colin O'Keefe was a superb wingback for FC Buffalo throughout the 2019 season. (Ben Tsujimoto/News file photo)

He was also picked by his teammates as team MVP and best offensive player, while Austin Stout claimed the Unsung Hero Award, Tramuta earned Supporters' Choice Award, Josh Read won top defensive player and Stout and Toland shared the Heart & Soul Award. See all of the honorees here.

Walter's Return

FC Buffalo's Chris Walter, a Nichols School alum and graduate of Hartwick College, bumped his all-time appearances for the club to a record 74. In a short conversation with the club's captain after the season, Walter said he plans to return again in 2020.

Questions for the future:

• How drastic will the changes be for FC Buffalo entering 2020?

• Will the coaching staff, as it's currently constructed, return?

• As the United Soccer League expands, will there be a place for a Buffalo team? Would someone invest in such an endeavor? (There's a lot of national discussion on USL expansion).

• What will it take for greater buy-in from Buffalo's expansive and diverse soccer community?

Email: btsujimoto@buffnews.com

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