The popularity of soccer has ebbed and flowed for decades. Some teams have folded while others have figured out a way to stay afloat or thrive. This year, FC Buffalo of the NPSL will begin their tenth season in the league. They have become a staple for Western New York soccer and boast a strong fan base including Buffalo native and namesake for their team nickname, Wolf Blitzer. Nick Mendola, a member of the team's ownership group, gave some thoughts about their milestone and upcoming trip to Germany, as they are set to become the first NPSL team to play in Europe.
In your first decade, do you have any memories that really stand out on or off the field?
In Year Two, a local giant in our sports community helped us throw an international friendly against English lower division side Bedlington Terriers. It was a lesson in how well soccer could draw, and how much work goes into throwing a big, big event. Plus, the relationship between the giant (Bob Rich of Rich Products) and the British club was covered in a BBC documentary (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22JJ7qmSBPs&t=1315s). And we won pretty big!
[That game saw FC Buffalo win over Bedlington Terriers (of the 9th division) by four, 5-1.]
What has been the biggest challenge with keeping a team playing in Buffalo?
While supporters have multiplied and media coverage has grown, corporate partnership dollars have tended to gravitate to the biggest sports teams in our market. That just means we need to grow our club, and it's fine motivation, but it's a lot more difficult to bring in new partnerships.
Was there any low point in which you worried that you wouldn't be able to field a team anymore?
Yeah for sure. The first few years were touch-and-go. We took some big baths on uneducated decisions, whether it was catering to perceived "needs" in transportation, team apparel, or other elements of the organization. We've seen so many teams fold, so even today we need to have a healthy dose of fear and concern in our back pocket.
There have been a lot of teams popping up around the country. Is there any aspect of what you have done with FC Buffalo that, if it were missing, would have kept you from making it this far?
It's cliche, but having fewer ardent supporters would've killed us. When we have a bad game or run of form, we've still got fans singing songs and making our stadium a special place to attend an event and share in community. I remember sweating on whether they'd come back from game-to-game in Year One, or from season-to-season very early. It's love, man.
With your tenth season in the NPSL about to begin, how has your community changed since your first started playing in Buffalo?
Oh, soccer is much bigger now, and much more expensive. And the average supporter is so much better educated on the sport due to the widespread availability of professional games on TV and the Internet. And our community of supporters has become an inextricable part of our mission to make soccer stronger in Western New York.
Does FC Buffalo have any specific traditions that is has picked up over the years?
A number of supporter songs and chants, like singing "Who's The Boss?" after opposing goal kicks because a first-season goalkeeper had the last name of Danza. Our Erie County Derby with the Erie Commodores (Buffalo is in Erie County, New York, and Erie is in Erie County, Pennsylvania) is pretty special.
FC Buffalo is heading to Germany this spring to be the first NPSL team to play in Europe. How has that plan come together?
There's enough in it to write a book. We are fortunate that we linked up pretty early with FC St. Pauli and knew we'd have a top-notch place to train and a good opponent (Their reserve side) for our first match. But passports, hotels, supporter travel, food... holy smoke. It'll be much easier the second time, but wow.
What do you see is the importance of international matches with FC Buffalo or with lower league teams in the U.S.?
It's more for us than them, and I think the friendlies are really important as both a barometer of where our club stands on the pitch, but also a way to bring in fans who still haven't experienced FCB and can get a gateway into what we do as a club.
Have there been any talks of more international matches, either abroad or in Buffalo?
Oh yes. May even be announced before this post goes up on your site!
*Since talking to Nick, FC Buffalo has added a friendly against international competition in which they will host Liga MX's Monarcas Morelia reserves in Buffalo. It will be a chance to see FC Buffalo against a Mexican side before they leave for Germany.
As you celebrate this season, do you have any goals for the next 10?
We've been building toward becoming a full professional side for some time, but it's been a far more arduous journey than expected. Either there wasn't a stable enough lower pro division, or -- like now -- we've had to revisit our approach to funding one. And either getting beer into our stadium or building up a new venue will become paramount to our health. Sad but true.
Is there anything you'd like to share with the lower league soccer community?
Yeah. Support your local club, whether it's the Portland Timbers or an upstart non-league club with ambition down the street from you. And if you find it hard to support said club, then get involved in a way that makes it what you want. Sometimes you gotta be the change.
Find out more about FC Buffalo, their schedule, and upcoming plans at FCBuffalo.org.
- Andy Rittenhouse