When Brendan Murphy started training his FC Buffalo club last week, he had only 10 players available. Monday that number increased to 12 and by midweek he had his full roster together.
That wasn’t a lot of time to prepare for Friday night’s National Premier Soccer League season opener, when FC Buffalo hosts Zanesville Athletic Football Club at 7:30 at All High Stadium in a Great Lakes Division matchup.
But that’s how the seasons start for the top-level amateur clubs as they wait for the sanctioned blessings of governing bodies to allow college players to join the club team. And when you think about it, that’s part of the fun.
“I think the teams that have most success are the ones with guys willing to put time in right away early on and get on the same page,” Murphy said. “They work together on defense, figure out how they want to move the ball and attack and then just go play. It’s tough, but the fun part right now is putting the pieces together, quickly evaluating strengths and weaknesses and seeing where players best fit within the system.”
Murphy is in his first year coaching FC Buffalo. The club is entering its fourth season, which in the semipro and amateur ranks of Buffalo sports qualifies as longevity. And the organization has seen growth in fan support, season ticket sales and sponsorships.
For those not embedded in the soccer subculture, here’s your primer to what FC Buffalo is all about, courtesy of General Manager and team President Nick Mendola:
“It’s the highest level of men’s soccer in Buffalo,” Mendola said. “I think the easiest way to describe it is to compare it to the Cape Cod League in baseball. These are the best non-paid players in America. And it’s an opportunity for this area to show United States Soccer that we can be a market for them.”
Players on FC Buffalo have amateur status and the majority are collegiate players ranging in age from 19 to 24. The majority of them are from Western New York or play at one of the local colleges. Some drive upwards of two hours from the Rochester and Syracuse areas for training and games.
The opportunity to play for a high-level team, improve their skills and get noticed by professional teams drives many of them to make the summer sacrifices. But when you do what you love, it doesn’t necessarily feel like a sacrifice.
And that’s pretty much a founding principle of the business model for Mendola and his partners on the business side of the FC Buffalo operations.
The ownership group, composed of native Western New Yorkers Mendola, Donny Kutzbach, Joshua Batten, Scott Frauenhofer, Brent Garner and Ray Siminski, came together in 2009 for the opportunity to live their dream and create something special in their hometown.
“We are not guys with tons of money,” Mendola said. “We were fortunate that we walked into a chance to buy a team. We don’t have a huge corporate sponsor. We put all of our money back into the team because we want to see it grow. We’re starting with the love of the game and the love of our city. We want to see a quality field, a fan base that keeps growing here at home. Just as we’re trying to find our dreams, our players are trying to find their dreams.”
The dream for FC Buffalo is to become a professional team with its own stadium.
The dream for the current players is to become professional soccer players. And in just the team’s fourth year, former FC Buffalo players have gotten noticed – Krystian Witkowski was drafted in the 2012 MLS Supplemental Draft by the Philadelphia Union, Kendell McFayden signed a multi-year deal with the Rochester Rhinos and Mike Reidy was selected in the 2013 MLS Supplemental Draft by Sporting KC.
Among the players to watch on this year’s squad are defender Nick Garcia, a Rochester native who played for Niagara’s NCAA Tournament team last season, defender Kolby Banker, a Grand Island product who plays at St. Bonaventure, and goalkeeper Kareen Gray, who played at Canisius Collage and is a native of Trinidad.
Off the field, the team has been creative, invoking the nickname the Blitzers after CNN anchor and Western New York native Wolf Blitzer. Its loyal fan base is known as “The Situation Room,” a nod to the CNN program Blitzer hosts. And while the numbers might sound small, their season ticket base has increased every single year. Mendola said they are already at more than 200 season tickets for 2013.
FC Buffalo has received corporate backing from several local businesses, but none perhaps more important than that of Rich Products. In 2011, Bob Rich helped arrange a match between the Bedlington Terriers of England’s Northern League and FC Buffalo for the Lord Bedlington Cup. The Terriers’ trip was the subject of a BBC documentary and in essence gave FC Buffalo’s venture the Bob Rich seal of approval.
In the lexicon of grass roots soccer, FC Buffalo has also made it very clear it is not looking to compete with existing organizations. FC Buffalo has no youth academy, nor is it looking to cut into the lucrative business of suburban soccer clubs.
Instead, the Blitzers see themselves as a place where everyone – from Amherst to Orchard Park to Buffalo – can come together to watch high-level soccer and cheer for the local team.
“If you play in Hamburg you can sit next to someone from Amherst and cheer for the same team even though you might be rivals on the field,” Murphy said. “It’s good, high-level soccer. You can watch them as role models for your position. It gives you something to aspire to.”