For those who don’t know me personally, I love soccer. A lot.
Like…Sabres/USMNT/Bills are 1A/1B/1C (and not necessarily in that order) a lot. So shut your face, Kowalski; it’s summer, the front page is drowning in draft analysis and I really can’t be bothered with talking Sabres hockey for at least another month.
Soccer and Buffalo are things you don’t naturally correlate aside from old Stallions pennants in a few diners around town and people laughing at the memory of the Pikuzinski mullets or Tony Meola’s brief stop here in the wake of USA ’94.
However, if you’ve been paying any kind of attention since the summer of 2010, you’d have noticed a burgeoning culture of soccer establishing itself in the region.
In less than 2 years we’ve seen Buffalo’s first soccer dedicated pub (Mes Que) open, an American Outlaws chapter (@AOBuffalo) form and, most importantly, the rise of FC Buffalo. Having a club to call your own is essential if you fashion yourself a respectable footballing city. Ever since the contraction of the Blizzard nearly a decade ago, Buffalo has gone wanting for a professional men’s team of any stripe. That has been remedied by Kenmore natives Nick Mendola (@NicholasMendola) and Scott Frauenhofer (@sfrauenhofer) with the establishment of FC Buffalo in the NPSL.
The NPSL represents the 4th tier of soccer in the US (with MLS/NASL/USL rounding out the top tiers) yet supporters, staff & players surrounding the club have brought a top flight attitude and lofty goals and dreams to All High Stadium. Nick & Scott were kind enough to take time out for an interview about the team, the city and how they plan on making this club something all Buffalonians can be proud of.
Note – this is the first of what I hope is a full summer of FC Buffalo coverage and features for Bleed Buffalo in conjunction with my other fledgling blog and fake writing job: In Towards McBride.
Look for match reports, more interviews and other goodies as the summer rolls on. Soccer truly is the world’s game and FC Buffalo and the people involved have a story that should be told. So without further Adu (pun most assuredly intended)…
Bleed Buffalo: Let’s get the obvious questions out of the way- why soccer? Why Buffalo? Why now?
Nick - Soccer’s a great game. Buffalo’s a great city. Now is a great time. Quite literally, I believe that FC Buffalo can play a pivotal role in revitalizing a neighborhood or even an image if we operate this club as well as possible
Scott - I started playing soccer at a young age and the sport has always been more than an activity to me. The culture and lifestyle that come along with being a fan of the game has always been a lot of fun. We wanted to bring some of that culture to Buffalo. When we bought the rights for the team and started thinking about our business philosophy one of the first things we all agreed on was we need to do something positive for Buffalo, we wanted to operate inside the city and work with local businesses. We wanted to put together a roster that showcased our local talent, and work with the best local coaches. That’s how Nick came up with our motto: “For Our City.”
Bleed Buffalo: We’re coming into the third season of FC Buffalo. As a Buffalo sports club the training wheels are off in a sense. Do you feel like the team and the name has made the kind of progress you anticipated/hoped for in Spring 2010 both on and off the field?
Nick- That’s a tremendously-difficult question to answer, but I’ll try. Our supporters, sponsors and players have given us everything they’ve got, and that’s beyond our wildest dreams. However, as an organization, we still have a ton to accomplish on and off the field. We’re alive after two-plus years and no one’s had to sell their houses or souls. These are good things to own.
Scott - I remember going to the National Premier Soccer League’s annual general meeting before our first season and being astonished by the presentation given by the owners of FC Chattanooga. They had a major sponsor (Volkswagen) and were drawing 4,000 people on average to their home games. I quickly realized FC Buffalo could succeed in the league and the city, we just needed to be creative and tenacious with our approach.. The team is continuing to grow positively on and off the field. The fan support seems to be growing at a much more rapid clip than I can say I’ve noticed in the previous years. The Rust Belt rivalry is already turning into a nice experience and given our fans a way to be activated and participate in the team’s culture.
Bleed Buffalo: There’s a definite sense of bigger things coming in the NPSL this season. AFC Cleveland & Detroit City FC bring a more “major league” sensibility to what was before simply a way for local NCAA players to keep in shape over the summer. Both have seemed to embrace the Portland Timbers style ground up/community & supporter oriented culture that’s been such a success across MLS and the upper divisions of the US Soccer pyramid. What are your thoughts on these new clubs and what effect do you think they’ll have on our regional soccer landscape?
Nick - Moving to the Great Lakes Division is nearly everything we want and Detroit City and Cleveland are major parts of our excitement. There’s a natural Rust Belt kinship between our areas and they are located so close to our home. It would’ve taken a lot of work to build up a fierce rivalry with Eastern Pennsylvanian or Maryland-based teams. With Detroit and Cleveland – thanks in no small part to the supporters groups in Michigan and Ohio – we’re almost at rivalry status immediately.
Scott - It’s going to be amazing. I like the regionality a lot, the rivalries are organic, the fans have somebody to villainize, it’s going to be a lot like the Sabres classic rivalries I think.
Bleed Buffalo: All High Stadium is a fantastic place to catch a game and, with the roof and brick facade, is the wet dream of many a soccer nerd considering it evokes images of grounds like Highbury & Villa Park. However, being owned by Buffalo Public Schools throws up a lot of roadblocks in terms of scheduling, vendor restrictions and liquor laws. Do you think the positives ultimately outweigh the negatives and what do you see in the future for the FC Buffalo/All High relationship?
Nick - Robert E. Rich All-High Stadium is a good home for us at this very moment in the club’s progression. We believe the stadium is an absolute jewel and respect the privilege of spending time playing there. The future is largely in the hands of the people behind the scenes and far up the ladder with Buffalo Public Schools, but we’re prepared for anything.
Scott - It’s been a pleasure to work with Buffalo Public Schools and have them as a partner in the team’s development. All High is a fantastic facility and I consider us very fortunate to be able to use it. The ability to refresh the supporters during the summer with cold, adult beverages would be welcome, but those are the rules and if the tradeoff is the historic, beautiful stadium I’m afraid I can’t complain.
Bleed Buffalo: Besides soccer camps with local youth clubs, are there any other facets of community engagement you’d like to be involved in or are currently working on?
Nick - Yes. There will be a slow build-up because we don’t want to step on any current clubs’ toes, but we will be bringing national soccer figures into the area for some Q&As and linking up with some city programs to provide top-notch instruction to Buffalo youth players from our players and staff. There are other things I need to remain tight-lipped about, but rest-assured we have gigantic things in the pipeline. It’s just difficult to know the exact length of that pipeline
Scott - Right now we’re happy to assist our local youth clubs however we can. Whether it’s additional training, camps and clinics, or giving free tickets away, we know that we can’t survive longterm without young people embracing the team and becoming fans. I see FC Buffalo becoming more involved with local charities in the future, we’ve got some ideas lined up for this season including honoring “Buffalo’s Toughest Kids,” so we’ll be looking for more ways to engage the community like that in the future.
Bleed Buffalo: It’s a sad fact that Metropolitan Buffalo is an extremely segregated city, one of the worst in the nation.
This is uncomfortably evident at our sporting events…there’s minimal presence in the stands of the Ralph or the FNC of Buffalo’s sizable minority community. Of all our local sports teams, FC Buffalo has been the most outspoken in terms of embracing civic pride and the sometimes hidden diversity of the area. Do you see any opportunity in the minority and immigrant communities that have been passed over by the Bills & Sabres as a potential bedrock of support moving into the future?
Nick - Absolutely. First off, let me say I don’t believe the Bills & Sabres have purposely done anything to ignore these groups. What I will say is that we’re actively pursuing all Western New Yorkers as fans. There are certainly some cultural gaps we will have to bridge, but I’m comfortable with our efforts to build that infrastructure. Whether it be a “hidden” Burmese population or a new family of immigrants from Sweden, we’re going to do what we can to show them they have a football club to get behind.
Scott - Of course. Some of my favorite experiences playing soccer in Buffalo is getting into pickup games at Delaware Park or Lasalle Park and counting the languages being spoken off the field, but speaking the same language on the field. The great thing about soccer is you only need a ball to get a game going, so I want to find the pickup games and introduce myself and put some tickets in their hands. I have this idea that the future of FC Buffalo, even the future of American soccer is out there kicking around and maybe there’s a language or financial barrier keeping them from participating. I want all of Buffalo behind us, at our games, being a part of Buffalo’s new soccer culture.
Bleed Buffalo: Ever since the summer of 2010 and the incredible watch parties at Papa Jakes for the World Cup, there seems to have been a flourishing of soccer culture across Buffalo. We’ve seen the growth of FC Buffalo, formation of an American Outlaws chapter and the first dedicated soccer bar ever in the city in the form of Mes Que.
How do you think FC Buffalo can capitalize on that growth and where do you see Buffalo soccer going in the coming years?
Nick - I like to think we’ve become a part of the fabric, at least with fervent soccer supporters. We’ll continue to put ourselves in places where we can meet fans who don’t know they have a local club, but the mere fact that we continue to exist should aid our growth.
I believe it’s not entirely about growth; Parents and kids have been playing the game for a long time, but they can now “come out of the soccer closet” – so-to-speak — thanks to mass media and market appeal. The term “the beautiful game” isn’t a misnomer. The folks who want to latch onto complaints about diving and urine bombs overseas have had to come face-to-face with the facts that there are plenty of problems in American sports… like diving, flopping, reckless intent to injure, et cetera. All sports have issues, and if one of our biggest obstacles is people stereotyping us as orange-eaters and Capri Sun drinkers… sweet.
Scott - We just need to continue to be accessible to everybody, FC Buffalo isn’t just about soccer, it’s for our city. New fans, old fans, casual onlookers, we want to make a product that anyone can get on board with.
Bleed Buffalo: It’s been said before that America loves soccer. Just not American soccer. How do you feel you can bridge the gap between those in the area (and there are many) who look down on American soccer…especially NPSL level soccer?
Nick- Well, we have to put on an entertaining, winning product. We’ve prided ourselves on hiring coaches who were scrappy as players and looked down upon the theatrics we’ve witnessed from some of our rivals.Short of winning an Earth lottery that gives us trillions upon trillions of dollars, we’re not going to be able to pay the best players in the world to come play for FC Buffalo, even at the Major League Soccer level. So, supporters are going to have to decide: do they want to support only European teams and hang out in their houses or do they want to do that AND come outside for their city and embrace folks who love the game just as much as they do?
Why wouldn’t you want to play an integral role in the growth of a club? What if Seymour Knox or Ralph Wilson weren’t loaded and just trying to grow a game they loved? Wouldn’t you feel aces right about now? And old?
Look, I’m looking to have a favorite team in every country in the world. I support Newcastle United in England, Fiorentina in Italy, Barcelona in Spain… and there will certainly be more (leaning toward Buffalo’s sister city in France, Lille).
Scott - I love American soccer. I love the never say die attitude, the Spain beating bravado, all that us against the world mentality. That said, I honestly believe the next generation of soccer players is going to be the breakthrough generation. My reasoning is that as the US gets over the relative newness of the sport, and more former players become coaches, the quality of the player will improve. When I was kid, not to knock my former coaches, but they were dads who grew up playing baseball or hockey, they didn’t know the ins and outs of the game. We’re going to see a generation of soccer players raised by soccer players, and I think you’ll see a real shift in the American game.
Bleed Buffalo: Dempsey or Donovan?
Nick - I like Lando just fine, but to me Dempsey is a dirty jersey, grass-stained Buffalo boy who happens to be from Texas. Lando’s big city, Dempsey’s us.
Scott - John O’Brien. Kidding. I love them both. I don’t really support any club team, so I always tell people my favorite team is the US Men’s National Team. Clint and Landon have stepped up for the US and chipped in some amazing, clutch goals so regularly I can’t help rooting for both of them.
Bleed Buffalo: Last one. It’s 2022. FC Buffalo is still a functioning club. Where do you see it?
Nick - Major League Soccer or the closest thing to it.
Scott - Being a host city for the 2022 World Cup after Qatar loses its bid and the tournament comes stateside. A guy can dream right?
Many thanks to Nick & Scott – check out a game at All High sometime this summer: www.fcbuffalo.org