On a decade in American soccer

The first of many serious, “What are we doing?” moments in the history of FC Buffalo happened a little over 10 years ago at French Pub in Depew, New York.

The opening few months of FC Buffalo had been a whirlwind. The owner of the NPSL territorial rights for Western New York had tried, ineffectively, to find someone to buy them until it somehow came to a couple of 20-somethings from the Northtowns. Premier local youth soccer clubs, pro investors, business people, all a big, “No thanks.”

But one of the men who’d been volunteering to help that dying club with public relations was long-time friends with a local media member who had been a season ticket holder for the club’s predecessor. A wary-toned, “Could we do it?” was answered with a shoulder-shrugging, “I was kinda thinking that.”

The league’s public relations director lived in Buffalo. He was up for it, and so was a men’s league teammate. Within months we had a name and a logo. Web presence. All that easy stuff.

What we didn’t have was players (Who were we?), tryout dates (difficult without a coach) or a stadium (Recent tenants had soured the taste). We had as many sponsors (Thanks, Northtowns Orthopedics) as we had businesses chasing us for debts owed from long-folded soccer teams (Good try, I guess?).

And as the simplest option as a possible first coach interviewed in uninspiring fashion, the answer wasn’t there either.

Overwhelmed? A little.

But like most every other storm over these 10 years, we weathered it. A high school teammate called and suggested we contact the man who became our first coach. He put together a remarkable team and within five months we somehow hung with the USL’s Rochester Rhinos in preseason friendly before losing 2-0.

We finished in a comfortable third place, buoyed by two NPSL All-Stars: goalkeeper Dan Panaro and midfielder Daniel Stevens. The former is still coaching at a high level in Buffalo and the latter is in his ninth (!!) season playing professionally in Finland.

We were the only team to beat the eventual national champions, FC Sonic Lehigh Valley, on goals from a kid from Akron named Andy Tiedt and one from England named Mike Unwin. Both players are woven into the fabric of our club, as is one of the classiest players ever to wear blue and gold in center back Mbwana Johnson.

We asked him to say a few things about those early days. We’re grateful he obliged.

“Twas a privilege to run out for the FC Buffalo Blitzers during my first year, as it had appeared that a regional all-star team had been assembled; From the coaching expertise of Jim Hesch to playing alongside the magic feet and eventual foreign-based professional, Daniel Stevens. One of the most encouraging aspects about playing for the team that first year was the unwavering boisterous support of the fans. Whether we were dominating at home or struggling to find our flow during a game, the fans provided an uplifting boost with every chant and always left the players feeling appreciated, no matter what the scoreboard displayed at the end of a match. Finally, it must be noted that the humility and openness with which the owners were involved and communicated with the players has to be lauded. This interaction tended to foster not only a stress-free environment, but also aided in the self-efficacy of each player that dubbed the blue and gold. I wish the organization continued growth and success as they head into the new year.” — Mbwana Johnson (FCB 2010-11).

The ownership part is only true because several more friends joined the fold before opening day, one who remains part of our crew to this day. Sacrifices were made, whether it be financial like putting a team bus on a personal account or humble moves like a day job CEOs selling pizza in the All-High foyer.

Mbwana mentions Jim Hesch, and it’s worth noting that FC Buffalo has been fortunate to have a number of coaches who’ve seen beyond what was to what could be. Due to our naivete, Coach Hesch had to arrange things we wouldn’t dare ask a coach to arrange in Year No. 10. We’d later hire Brendan Murphy, whose staff brought an incredible fidelity to the identity of his team. And the latest staff, led by Frank Butcher, John Grabowski, and Casey Derkacz, show a remarkable depth of care for the players and project.

It’s worth mentioning Casey and Johnny because they represent players who became coaches of our Wolves. The players mentioned so far are all in their 30s now, and that’s meant seeing them become professionals whether in soccer or their post-school field. We’ve seen some get married and have children. Doctors and lawyers. Teachers and dentists. And — yes seriously — a forward-turned-men’s skeleton trialist for Team USA at the Olympics.

Buffalo soccer has exported so much in the past decade. There’s long been a Buffalo-born player in MLS (Bobby Shuttleworth), and now the communications chief for Atlanta United, the creative services director at New York City FC, and the scouting manager with the Colorado Rapids are Buffalo products. The latter, Chris Zitterbart, was one of FCB’s first interns and met up with us on our Germany trip. Incredible talents and twists of fate.

We’ve had dozens of players move onto professional clubs here and abroad (and more to come real soon). That’s sick, though our love and faith remains in the players who’ve given us several summers of their blood, sweat, and even a tear or two on the field. Seven players have played in more than 30 NPSL matches for us, which can’t be done in less than three seasons. We mentioned John Grabowski above, who between coaching and playing has been at more FCB games than maybe a half-dozen people in the world. Kendell McFayden managed playing 45 to become our leading scorer, all sandwiched around a USL career. Chris Walter’s next appearance will be his 75th in a league contest. Coaches literally ask us if he’ll be back at our league meetings, hoping the answer is no so they can relay relief to their players. It’s been yes every time. Seventy-five. Bold it, italicize it, underline it, and you’ll still need more emphasis to detail our gratitude.

And we’ve got one of the only soccer-first pubs in the United States of America, Mes Que. It takes brass and daring to start a project like that now, let alone when few here would dream of it. So proud that they’ve been one of our sponsors, as are we of every business and investor who has taken a leap of faith in our club.

Our first decade saw some absolutely bonkers things go our way. In Year No. 2, we were stunned to find ourselves in the chairman’s office at Rich Products, asked whether we’d help host English side Bedlington Terriers FC for Buffalo’s first international friendly in a half-century. Even more wild was representing our city in Germany as part of the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the Sister City relationship between Buffalo and Dortmund. We’re still stunned it came together, and we’ll never forget it.

And, well, holy smoke:

None of these things come off without our staff, whose emotional and spiritual investment in FC Buffalo is humbling and inspiring.

Which brings us to the most sincere “last but not least” reference of all-time: Thank you to our supporters. You have no idea how important every gesture of support means to us, or how many times a voice in the stands in May, a supporting pat on the back after a win or loss at Mes Que, or a purchase in our store in October has pushed us forward when it was needed in desperate fashion.

Seeing you home and away is a monumental honor, whether down the road in Hamburg, New York, or thousands of miles from home in Hamburg, Germany. We don’t deserve it, but ironically it’s what keeps us believing we will one day. You’re the fuel in the tank, the food in the belly of our beast.

Here’s Jamaican striker Akean Shackleford, who quickly became a fan favorite after scoring seven goals in 11 matches during his first season in Buffalo.

“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it. For me, being able to play for FC Buffalo and represent the city was amazing, and I would do it all over again if I had to. The soccer was great, the players were awesome, the management team was fantastic but the fans, man, they are unbelievable,” Akean Shackleford, (FCB 2017-18).

Unbelievable, but real. Here’s to another 10 years, and to seeing our dreams come true, together and soon.

Oh, and more of this, please:

1 Response
  1. richard jezewski

    it would be nice if the athletes FROM BUFFALO would STAY IN BUFFALO AND KEEP THE TEAM A TRUE BUFFALO TEAM – it’s kind of upsetting to have the BUFFALO bust their butts here then go and help another city win championships – there’s just something wrong about that.