To Appreciate Where We Are, We Must Understand Where We’ve Been: A Comprehensively Brief Look At The History Of Upper-Level Soccer In Buffalo
Old Team Tuesday is a weekly feature taking a look at former teams that have gone by the wayside. This week’s edition revisits the entire history of soccer in Western New York. This is the original, unedited version of the same topic that appeared on queencityblitzers.com on April 23, 2014.
The relationship between Buffalo and soccer has been more unstable than a marriage to Zsa Zsa Gabor. Nine teams have set up shop here, with few finding any measure of success and most being forced to close down or move away. Now, as Americans finally seem to be falling for the beautiful game, that sentiment is echoed in western New York, where Buffalonians finally have a team they can cozy up to.
Let’s start in 1976, near the tail end of Gabor’s sixth marriage. The Buffalo Blazers of the Canadian-based National Soccer League opened play at War Memorial Stadium. A mediocre first season didn’t disparage the team, and in 1977, the club finally made progress, going 12-3-3 to wind up third in their 10-team division. The club took a huge step backward the following year, slogging through a 3-14-3 season that forced them to regroup for a year. They returned to the pitch in 1980, but a lack of fans in the stands and wins in the standings spelled doom for the team.
In 1979, The Buffalo Stallions took up residency in Memorial Auditorium after the Buffalo Braves basketball team decided it would be best to split and head to San Diego after an eight-year stint in western New York. Initial reaction to the team was positive, as an announced 11,028 fans turned out for their inaugural game against the Philadelphia Fever on December 7, 1979.
The Stallions continued to draw well initially, and in their second year the team averaged over 9,400 fans per game. However, the fervor for the Stallions did not last, and despite hosting the 1982 Major Indoor Soccer League All-Star Game, attendance continued to plummet. In their fifth and final season, a meager average of 4,834 fans came out to the Aud for each game.
While 1984 saw the collapse of the Stallions, it also brought about the Buffalo Storm, who joined eight other franchises in the upstart United Soccer League and called All-High Stadium their home. The Storm won their division after a 24-game regular season, but were dispatched by eventual-champion Fort Lauderdale by a paltry 9-1 aggregate in the first round of the playoffs. Following the season, the team disbanded.
The Buffalo Blizzard brought indoor soccer back to the region in 1992 as an expansion franchise in the National Professional Soccer League. The original owners of the team were the Knox brothers, who also owned the Buffalo Sabres hockey team at the time, and the Rich family, the long-time owners of the Buffalo Bisons baseball club. The team managed to rake in some of the best attendance numbers in the league. The 1993-94 campaign was the most successful in terms of fandom, with an average of nearly 8,500 fans per game.
However, a lack of playoff success led to the demise of the team, and after an ownership change, a steady decline in attendance, and instability throughout the league, the team opted to dissolve in 2001.
Buffalo hasn’t just been home to men’s soccer teams, either. In 1996, the W-League granted Buffalo a team, and thus the FFillies were born. The team floundered both on the pitch and off. In its first year, average attendance hovered around 90 fans, and the club went 0-10. Over the course of those ten games, the squad scored only six goals while surrendering 41.
The next year was slightly better for the FFillies. The team went 3-7 and drew more than double the amount of fans than the previous season. Yet, in the middle of an 0-5 campaign in 1998, the team was abruptly dismantled after management realized fan support was not going to be what they needed it to be.
After the Blizzard vacated HSBC Arena and ceased operations in 2001, the area was without a regional soccer team for nearly six years. Then, in 2007, Buffalo got its first taste of the National Premier Soccer League.
In its first season, Queen City FC battled to a 7-2-1 record to stand atop the Northeast Division of the NPSL at season’s end. In the playoffs, the Blues played all the way to the league championship game, only to lose by one goal to the Southern California Fusion in the finals. In their next season, Queen City FC was unable to replicate the previous year’s success. A third-place finish in the division excluded them from postseason contention, and after the 2008 season, the club folded.
2009 did not see the birth of just one soccer team in Buffalo, but two. NPSL soccer returned in the form of Buffalo City FC and the Buffalo Flash, a professional women’s team, opened play in the USL W-League, the same league that housed the FFillies over a decade before.
In their first season, Buffalo City FC managed to rack up eight wins and two losses, and despite having the second-best point total in the division and the third-best point total in the 27-team league, they were left out of the playoffs. Following the season, the team suffered the same fate as their predecessors and folded.
The Flash experienced a far more successful inaugural season than their forerunners. They finished second in the Great Lakes Division with a 9-2-3 record. In 2010, the team changed divisions, but the change didn’t seem to faze the team, who trounced their opponents en route to an undefeated 14-0-2 record in the regular season. The Flash cruised all the way to the championship game, where they handed the Vancouver Whitecaps a 3-1 loss to claim the W-League title.
2011 brought about even more changes for the Flash. The team sought to play several home games in the Rochester area, essentially halving the amount of games they would play in Buffalo. After negotiations with Buffalo Public Schools fell through, the team opted to play the entirety of its games in Rochester.
The team also pulled up stakes in the W-League in favor of Women’s Professional Soccer. Another stellar season culminated on August 27, 2011, where the rebranded and regionalized Western New York Flash defeated the Philadelphia Independence 5-4 on penalty kicks to claim a second-straight league championship.
Since 2011, the Flash have remained in Rochester, where they won the Women’s Premier Soccer League Elite title in 2012, were runners-up for the National Women’s Soccer League championship in 2013, and continue to draw some of the highest attendance totals in all of women’s soccer.
Despite Buffalo City FC closing up shop, the NPSL returned to the region yet again. The new organization, FC Buffalo, stepped in and made it clear that they intended to be more than just another paragraph in the history of western New York soccer.
The team aimed to develop a sense of belonging within the community, with whom they could establish a foundation and fan base. A contest was held to nickname the team, and following a segment on CNN courtesy of Buffalo-raised Wolf Blitzer, the chosen name was “Blitzers”. Subsequently, “Wolves” has also become a moniker for the team. The team’s mascot also happens to be a wolf.
FC Buffalo made strides to forge a name for themselves in 2011, when on June 29, they hosted the Bedlington Terriers in a match dubbed the “Lord Bedlington Cup”. The name of the contest came from none other than former Blizzard and current Bisons owner Bob Rich, Jr. Rich traced his family lineage back to the Bedlington area of England, and his wife purchased the rights to the title “Lord Bedlington”.
Rich Products, the corporation owned and operated by Mr. Rich, became the jersey sponsor for both the Blitzers and the Terriers, and a crowd of nearly 4,000 packed the stands at All-High Stadium to witness a 5-1 victory for the local squad.
The 2012 season concluded with a dismal 1-7-4 record, and a team overhaul followed. New coach Brendan Murphy was brought in and immediately changed the team culture, demanding true dedication from his players in order to make the roster. The new ideology wound up paying dividends in multiple ways in 2013.
Firstly, an abundance of players at team tryouts allowed the team to create a reserve squad to compete in the Buffalo District Soccer League. The extra demand to be a part of the team hinted at the fact word is spreading about the hot commodity the team is proving to be.
Secondly, the Wolves defeated the hated Erie Admirals for the first time in franchise history. On June 14, FC Buffalo pulled out a dramatic 1-0 victory over a team they had previously gone 0-7-1 against in just over three seasons of play.
Lastly, FC Buffalo fought their way to second place in the Great Lakes Division, meaning they had secured their first-ever playoff berth. A 5-2 drubbing at the hands of Erie in the opening round ended their postseason trip, but the groundwork had been laid and the bar had been set to a new high.
As FC Buffalo prepares for their fifth year, the team is expecting to build upon last year’s successes. A family-friendly environment with a community-oriented focus offers contributes to one of the best weekend experiences in Erie County.
In June the World Cup commences in Brazil, and Americans will undoubtedly be in a fever pitch for soccer, and seeking ways to take it in firsthand and feed their appetite. FC Buffalo will be seeking to capitalize on this quadrennial phenomenon, especially if the national squad can advance out of pool play and into the elimination stages of the tournament.
With such an erratic soccer history, the path to a successful marriage between fans and teams in western New York is a long and rocky one. The community must unite to strengthen the team, who in return must be able to provide a quality product. Unlike previous franchises, who have struggled through relative obscurity and anonymity, the team that now calls Buffalo home has done a remarkable job at branding themselves and making a long-term relationship here possible. They involve themselves in the community through charitable organizations and assist small businesses who can advertise their brand in return. They bring in youth soccer clubs to partake in the festivities and promote their games as a go-to family destination.
This season will be a season of change for soccer here in western New York. This is not the first time the spectacle of the World Cup can make a direct impact on a local team, but what makes this year different is the fact that this is by far the most established franchise Buffalo has had to coincide with the international tournament. No other team has had the benefit of playing their season during the World Cup and been established for more than two years.
The fates have granted Buffalonians this once-in-a-lifetime chance to make a difference and change the course of our history. The only question left is whether or not the ninth time is a charm. Maybe Zsa Zsa can offer some personal insight into that one.
Editor's Note: Matt Birt is a former FC Buffalo intern.
Editor's Note: Matt Birt is a former FC Buffalo intern.