I've known FC Buffalo owners Nick Mendola and Scott Frauenhofer for a decade and a half, watching their love for the game of soccer evolve into running their own National Premier Soccer League team. It only took the Wolves (the current, approved nickname after a few years going by the Blitzers in honor of Ken West grad Wolf Blitzer) two games to earn their first win and clean sheet, defeating the New Jersey Blaze in front of the home crowd at Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium 2-0.
The next year saw them defeat the visiting Bedlington Terriers FC from England in an international friendly—the inaugural Bedlington Cup—with a sold-out crowd cheering from the stands. Last year saw the Wolves earn their first ever post-season berth and the hope is to go even further in 2014.
Gearing up for the season opener in Erie this Friday (5/16, 7:00PM) before getting in front of the hometown fans Sunday (5/18, 2:00PM) at Canisius' Demske Sports Complex versus AFC Cleveland, Nick sat down with us to discuss the past, present, and future of our Buffalo's fast-growing fascination with soccer and the team paving the way.
Buffalo Vibe: Here we are five years later: FC Buffalo has accumulated a devout fan base, partook in an international friendly, and earned their first playoff berth. Have the Wolves exceeded expectations?
Nick Mendola: Loaded question, but yes.
I don't know if the team and the way we've operated have exceeded expectations, but the support of the soccer fans in the community certainly has. We knew where we were coming from; we knew there were teams at our level in this city who had failed. And we knew that the most popular, most supported teams in this city had been indoor soccer. So there was a challenge in trying to make sure we could exist without running a youth team, which is how most soccer programs make their money. So I hope that has helped us.
It's exceeded expectations in the way that people have responded to us and kind of bought into our ethos, which I hope is because it's real. I think there are a lot of people in—not a lot of people in Buffalo, but a lot of people around the world and especially the United States who will latch onto the ethos of their city and it's not always authentic. We've tried really, really hard to be one of those businesses in Buffalo who we say, "We're for Buffalo" and we're doing it. We haven't made—not a single person in the club has made a dollar off the team yet. It is genuinely about providing soccer—a platform for soccer fans. When we get money in it goes back into the club.
So, yes. The long and short answer is that it has exceeded expectations.
And what is it about soccer? It's huge internationally yet always seems to the sport with untapped potential here in America. What about our community made you think this venture would be viable in Buffalo?
Well, it's kids. Right? I mean, I remember being in fifth or sixth grade at St. Amelia's where I grew up [in the Town of Tonawanda] and I was really one of the only kids at my school who was a hockey player and not a soccer player. Everyone's been playing it and they've just needed outlets. They've needed people to come out of the proverbial soccer closet. I don't mean to use that phrase in any sort of casual manner because obviously it's a very, very, very serious issue, but for the longest amount of time soccer fans were just made fun of and dismissed. We want to make sure that they know there's this community that isn't ashamed we love this great game and that we want it to be supported.
I think it's happening here. I think the biggest issue in the United States is that the best [soccer] league in the world isn't here. NBA: that's the best basketball league in the world. NHL is the best hockey league in the world. Baseball, football. On the whole, sometimes it's a challenge for American sports fans to reconcile watching something that could get slaughtered against the best team in the world who's from another country. So I think that's what's taken people some time.
The mobilization of soccer fans inside the communities has provided—along with the growth of the MLS and the success of the Unites States men's national team—has definitely made people want to find a team in their area and get a little tribal with it.
How big is The Situation Room coming out to every FC Buffalo game and Més Que now on Hertel providing a dedicated soccer bar helped you guys grow as a team?
They've both been integral. In terms of Més Que, you have a place where you can walk in at any time and find people who—most of whom are interested in soccer. There are people who go there for the great food and there are people who go there just to hang out. And believe me, I've been impressed sometimes at how dolled up some of the people are there. [laughs] But at the same time it's a place you know you can go and talk soccer with people. I'd say at least thirty times this off-season alone—when I've struck up a conversation—it ends up with people finding out more about FC Buffalo. So that's been huge for us.
The other thing that's been big—you mentioned TSR, The Situation Room—is that they're letting people know. I think—a few years ago there was a team called Queen City FC and I was a season ticket holder for that. You went to the game and you always thought, "Man, wouldn't it be cool if people were singing or if there were some songs?" TSR has kind of said you can walk into this place; you can come down and sit with us and by the end of the game you're going to know how we roll. You're going to be in full-fledged support of soccer and you're going to feel like you're at a European game even if you're at a lower division in the United States. That's why they've been huge as well—plus they're great people. That's a huge part of it.
With the new season starting this week, what can we expect from the team? What does having Coach Brendan Murphy back for his second season bring to the table?
Well, I think the reason you like to see consistency and tenure on your coach is you know—it's not just the first level, which is that Coach Murphy knows what he's doing and the second level which is that players know he's going to be around. We signed him to a two-year extension so there's no question. You know what I mean? This is the guy who's in charge. But also, it's easier for us [as owners] because we know how he operates. He's done his dance through the league and he's looked around and we've spoken about it in the off-season—when you see other players, team's upping their ante by getting more talent in, it wasn't a reactionary thing. We were already trying to do that. We have a guy that's been through it.
We had another coach who had done it for two years as well—it's not a guarantee you're going to get better. You could get worse. But in this instance, Coach Murphy and Coach [Bob] Roach, his assistant, have worked really hard to make sure they're pushing all the right buttons, finding the right people.
There are a lot of college coaches in the area now who [understand] what this club can do for them and vice versa. If UB—whose head coach Stu Riddle is a friend of mine—if UB gets better and we can use their players in the summer, then we're using better players who are going to stay sharp all summer and get better for UB. That's the idea. And with the start of our reserve team as well—I'm on a bit of a tangent, I apologize—but with the start of our reserve team we can now take some talented high school players in addition to some college players who are on the cusp of being ready to make our team and get them ready so that if there is an injury there's as little drop off as possible.
Now is the reserve team pretty much like a minor league team for you? You're getting them used to the system as early as possible?
Yeah, we're putting them in the second of five divisions, so the second highest division of the BDSL which is the Buffalo District Soccer League where all men in the area play. We're hopeful that our team can win this year under coach John Grabowski—who played for [FC Buffalo]. You know, win this year and go up to the top flight. And if they're in the BDSL premier division, then there isn't a limit to the sort of talent we can attract for that team.
And how great is it that you have NSCAA First Team All-American Andrew Bednarsky coming back from St. Lawrence University? What does that say about the team's appeal?
There was always a chance that Andrew was going to end up in the MLS or on a higher division team than us. The fact that he was available—he's from New Jersey, he went to school closer to down state in Canton, NY where St. Lawrence is and he still says this is the best place for him to develop. That's a good sign.
Andrew is a class kid and a kid who is an example of what we want to show the players in the area. Andrew came here last summer, played very well but got hurt. I don't think he actually got on the score sheet even though he was a part of making some goals. But then he went away to school and had his best season yet and is able to at least in part credit the experience he had last summer for raising his game.
Now we have a freshman coming in from St. Lawrence—Andrew came as a junior and now he's graduated and we get him back. But now the best freshman on their team, Dan Hunt, is going to come and play for us and hopefully we can keep him for a few years.
You start to get that pipeline. Here's a really good Division III program that Coach Murphy played at and won a national championship with at the turn of the century. And you know that if it works out you might be able to continually get good players from a good program. That's how it works to our advantage.
Andrew is a fantastic player and a great kid and he's going to provide leadership on and off the field.
You've also had two players go in the MLS Supplemental Draft [Krystian Witkowski in 2012 and Mike Reidy in 2013]. Does Buffalo have some buzz going around the NPSL now as far as recruiting outside New York State?
We're getting there. We have four players coming from California; we have two coming from Jersey or two from down state-ish; and another coming from Texas via Pittsburgh. The buzz is here—almost every year we've had someone go pro.
And now even this year with Kendell McFayden—who played for us, then signed a professional deal with the [Rochester] Rhinos, and now is back with us—we're showing that we're a viable place for any player at any point in their career. Whether they're developing, whether they're figuring out what the next step is for them, or in the case of one of our players, Russell Cicerone from UB—he's next level. He's one of the best. He's a freshman this year and is already one of the best players to have played soccer in Western New York.
Again, getting good players, treating them well, and making them want to come back is a big deal for us.
Can you talk about the venue change? You're going to be at Canisius' Demske Sports Complex this year. What can we expect? What will be different?
I think the main thing that's going to be different in terms of experience is that at Demske people are going to be forced to be—and it's a good thing—there's a little less room to spread out. It's going to be crowded but not uncomfortably crowded. Now I think it will be a lot easier for the energy to be contagious and infectious because people always had a great time at our games, but in a five thousand-seat venue, a thousand people can really look spaced out. So in a fifteen hundred-seat venue—and we're hoping to up our attendance to around twelve hundred—it's just going to, even the visuals alone for the opposing players and just turning around and knowing there are people right with you. I think it's going to be a cool thing.
Other changes—I hesitate to say because it will be hard to know until we get there. The parking should be better, the field is bigger, there aren't any football lines on it—there are a lot of positives. I don't remember if you asked how it came about but to put it quickly and mildly, we didn't have much of a choice in the matter. We wanted to come back [to All-High Stadium], but there's an on-going discussion on how to use the field and we would have had to wait way too close to comfort for the start of our season to commit. I believe there's a meeting on this upcoming Wednesday and it's not even known if there will be a vote or a decision. We want our fans to know this is where we’re going to be all year and so that's why it took as long as it did. There are a lot of people in our corner, but that doesn't necessarily mean anything when you're dealing with such a big organization like Buffalo Public Schools.
Any update on possibly continuing the Bedlington Cup tradition? I believe the next installment is supposed to be in England? Anything on the horizon?
Yeah, you know, they're open to it. We're open to it. The problem is right now we would have to get over there either earlier or later than the season. And our season stretches from early May to late July—hopefully the first week of August. And right now more than half of our players are in college. As soon as our season is over, those players are back to college and as soon as their college is done they come back to us.
Step one would be having an army of players—at least fifteen, sixteen guys—who are available to go at a different time of year. So that would mean they're either post-collegiate—well, they would all have to be post-collegiate or we'd have to go in the wintertime over Christmas break and they all have different windows, the college kids. So that would be one thing. And the other challenge that we have is just the sheer money it costs to fly over there.
It's something we'd like to do. I think judging by how things have gone, us going over there would definitely be the next step. But when you have a bunch of players and a bunch of coaches and a bunch of owners who all have other jobs—it would take a real synchronicity. It's definitely not dead and I think they'll have us whenever. So, we're working on it. Believe me, we're working on it.
The home opener is going to be Sunday, May 18th at 2:00PM, but the season opener is actually going to be the 16th against your rivals the Erie Admirals. How huge would it be to earn your first road win against this team?
It'll be a big deal. We always expect to play well, but I think we just expect to have—it should be one of the most exciting games because at the beginning of the year not everyone is completely tight yet. They haven't found their complete chemistry. Erie has lost two of their better players; they've also brought in two players we were really interested in who play out in Erie. So they're going to be tremendous but they're also under a new coach for the first time.
So they're at that end and as talented as we've been as well, we won't have all our players back from college yet but we'll have a lot of them. Really, anything could happen. That's kind of the fun in the beginning of the year. Knowing that regardless of what could happen—and Erie has always kind of been a notoriously slow starter, so maybe this works out for us. Maybe it doesn't. It's going to be extremely exciting and we're going to be nervous for days beforehand—we already are nervous. The challenge will be, win or lose, not having a letdown because forty-eight hours later—less than that—it's time to open our home season in front of our fans.
Anything else you'd like to say to our readers about the team?
Just that we thrive off community support. We've got a lot of cool shirts and some artwork and tickets. Every little bit helps. If you see something at fcbuffalo.org/store that you like, pick it up because it helps us buy food for the players and all that stuff. That's really what we stress. We put a really good product out there so every bit of support helps.