And so one became two and two became three…
FC Buffalo was Western New York’s sole representative in the National Premier Soccer League in 2015. Rochester Riverdogz FC (now the Lancers) joined the league in 2016, and this upcoming season sees Syracuse FC join the fray.
The three clubs are inextricably linked by more than simply geographic location. Rochester decided to lean hard on former FC Buffalo players when constructing its roster, highlighting players like Anthony Rozzano, Luke Pavone, Gary Boughton, Cameron Hogg, and Jake Schindler. Riverdogz FC’s inaugural coach Matt Tantalo is now helping Syracuse get off the ground in 2017 just down the I-90.
Buffalo aims to smoothly transition from the reign of head coach Brendan Murphy, who left the club after four seasons (24W-17L-7D) to join the staff at USL club Rochester Rhinos, to new coach Frank Butcher. Butcher was a player and assistant coach at the collegiate level and has since established his Grand Island High School side as a powerhouse. Both of Butcher’s assistant coaches have a playing history with the club.
Being able to incorporate former players who are plugged into the local soccer community is a perk that Buffalo holds solely over its younger regional rivals. Casey Derkacz played for FC Buffalo in 2012 and coached area youth teams before his career on the sidelines took off with University at Buffalo’s women’s team. John Grabowski made 23 appearances for FC Buffalo over four seasons and has assistant coached at SUNY Fredonia before becoming head coach at Erie Community College.
Heading east, Rochester’s NPSL team has undergone a dramatic makeover. Despite an admirable on-field showing (the Riverdogz only lost to the top two teams in the division in 2016 and earned a surprising double over Buffalo), the situation off the field was somewhat less stable. After a tenuous winter, club General Manager Marc Mandell was elated to finally introduce Salvatore “Soccer Sam” Fantuazzo as new primary investor and former Rochester Rhinos legend (and indoor soccer iron man) Doug Miller as new head coach of the rebranded Rochester Lancers.
The Lancers were originally an outdoor professional team in the ASL and NASL during its 14-season lifetime (1967-1980). During that time, the Lancers won their division three times and won the NASL in 1970 which earned a berth on the 1971 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. Soccer Sam used the Lancers name for his professional indoor team that competed in the MISL and MASL from 2011 to 2015. Then 43-year old Miller was named as captain of the team in 2011 and was later named coach in 2014.
Matt Tantalo is a former collegiate player, professional player, and collegiate coach who led the Riverdogz in 2016. Tantalo treated his 2016 NPSL campaign that same way he approached his tenure heading the soccer program at Keuka College; developing his players both on and off the field.
Tantalo is now the head coach of the latest Western New York NPSL side, Syracuse FC. The rest of the team’s management has deep roots in the Syracuse soccer community: President Jaro Zawislan is a former professional player and college coach, Vice President of Soccer Operations Joe Papaleo played for Syracuse University before a professional career and has coached Christian Brothers Academy for over two decades, VP of Business Operations Marcello Vitale remains the all-time leading scorer for the Orange and has coached in the area for 30 years, Director of Sales & Marketing L.J. Papaleo also played for Syracuse University before his professional career and coaches at the high school level.
This strong connection to the existing soccer structures in and around Syracuse has already paid dividends as the first-year NPSL club builds its inaugural roster. 2015 USL Champion Nate Bourdeau, Slavisa Ubiparipovic, and Domenico Vitale all have multiple seasons of experience playing together for the Syracuse Silver Knights professional indoor team of the MASL.
Stefanos Stamoulacatos was a stand-out youth player who made appearances for U-19 national team. Stamoulacatos earned high praise over three seasons at Syracuse University but has been hampered by injuries since leaving college a year early. The creative forward played for the Riverdogz last summer and joined the Silver Knights for the 2016-17 campaign.
All the players currently on the roster of Syracuse FC have experience with the Silver Knights and most have personal connections to the area. Tapping into high-quality players with professional experience may prove to be the vital core of committed veterans that coach Tantalo can build a successful NPSL side around.
The trio of already familiar foes from Western New York will have an opportunity to become even more intimate this season. Each club will face the other two a combined total of four times during the NPSL Midwest Region East Conference regular season. Whichever emerges as the best will still have to contend with rivals from Pennsylvania and Ohio, including defending NPSL champion AFC Cleveland, for a spot in the playoffs.