With both Detroit and Cleveland extending their undefeated records over the third weekend of Great Lakes Division play, Sunday afternoon’s return match with AFC Cleveland at Robert E. Rich All High Stadium proved a pivotal early season test and opportunity for FC Buffalo to keep pace with their Rust Belt Cup brethren.
However, all three points were not to be as the two respective slices of bread in the Erie sandwich (it tastes awful, if you’re wondering) played a match that featured everything but a decisive winner. Hard tackles, questionable refereeing, smashed shots off the wood work and last minute goal mouth scrambles entertained a lively holiday weekend crowd in Buffalo as the I-90 rivals shared the spoils when the final whistle blew.
The game kicked off in Cleveland’s favor as the Ohioans bossed possession for a majority of the opening 10 minutes. FC Buffalo’s attempts to build out of the back on won challenges went begging as midfield cohesion and play through the middle was negated by Cleveland early on.
Vinny Bell, a goal scorer in the first match played in Cleveland, tormented the right side of the Buffalo defense with a potent mixture of speed, power and intelligence.
While Bell was impressive, Kendell McFayden was equally up to the task as the journeyman defender went about his business effectively, matching Bell physically but not conceding a penalty or a dangerous free kick in or around the Buffalo area.
The momentum swung back into the home side’s favor as the half wore on but Cleveland was the first to strike against the run of play in the 41st minute as the danger man Bell was sent through on a quality through ball from the Cleveland midfield.
The Buffalo defense, looking to maintain a higher line, held their ground and looked to the linesman for a raised flag but none came as the Cleveland forward appeared to be a couple steps in front of the Buffalo defense before completing his run. In on goal alone, Bell slotted home comfortably and gave the visitors the lead going into the half.
With Buffalo having contemplated the disastrous reality of a home loss to Cleveland during the half time team talk, the two sides came out swinging (for lack of a better term) in the second half with Derek Maier delivering a tone setting foul in the 46th minute. Tommy Schmitt from Cleveland presented a few dangerous opportunities for the Royals early on as FC Buffalo made a triple substitution in the 49th minute, bringing on Zelko, Spurrier & Schmidt.
Gary Boughton & Alex Rouse added a dimension of promising wing play for Buffalo going forward but lacked the final pass with the center of the Cleveland defense staying compact and efficient. Match tempo increased with both sides capitalizing off of stray passes in the midfield, resulting in end to end play and several “nearly” moments.
The Buffalo breakthrough came in the 60th minute as Mike Reidy found space in front of the AFC Cleveland back four and sent in Alex Rouse to calmly equalize past Yabrow. This goal spurred the visitors onto improved play as the next 10 minutes were dominated by Cleveland, showing increased tempo that resulted in several goal mouth scrambles and a venomous volley from Schmitt that went inches wide.
Complications arose for Buffalo in the 69th minute as defensive mainstay Jake Rinow was injured and assisted off the field. Fan favorite Mbwana Johnson was subbed in for the wounded defender a few minutes later and filled in admirably as a full back on the right side of the defense for the duration of the match.
Cleveland looked to steal an invaluable three points on the road as Tyler Johnston headed home in the 82nd minute off of a period of sustained Cleveland possession that was placed to the left of FC Buffalo net minder Eric DeHond.
The plot thickened in the 85th as Cleveland’s Alex Behader was sent off after a rough challenge in the Buffalo area, resulting in his second yellow of the match. Tempers flared further and Mbwana Johnson also picked up a caution as Behader left the pitch.
FC Buffalo made the final minutes fascinating as Mike Reidy found the ball at his feet in the Cleveland area after an inswinging cross ping ponged about to allow the eventual man of the match to slalom around several Cleveland defenders and blast the second equalizing goal home, sending the Buffalo crowd into raptures.
Wild sequences followed into stoppage time as Buffalo buzzed about the Cleveland third, coming within inches of a story book last minute winner. A 90th minute free header was parried away by Yabrow, only to fall to the feet of Buffalo who smashed the second opportunity off the far post. A final Buffalo corner was poorly played and cleared away, bringing the referee’s whistle and the end of the match.
With an Erie thrashing of Binghamton later that evening, the result leaves Buffalo in 4th place in the division and last in the Rust Belt Cup standings. While there is still much more football to play this summer, next week’s home fixture against the inept Greater Binghamton FC is worthy of the “must win” label as any game this season insofar.
FC Buffalo: DeHond; Hall (Grabowski 79’), McFayden, Snelgrove, Rinow (Johnson 69’); Reidy, Faga, Stedman (Cwiklinski 57’); Tiedt (Zelko 46’), Rouse (Tor 83’)
AFC Cleveland: Yabrow; Cutler, Winters, Spilker (Manna 62’), Earnest (Spagnolo 75’); Poe, Matlock (Spurrier 46’), Vail (Johnston 79’), Holowaty; Miller (Schmitt 46’), Bell (Bahadur 67’)
Match report compiled by Russ Andolina – @rjandolina