Nick Mendola admits there are times when he wonders if it’s all worth it, if he should just walk away and spend more time with his family.
Back in 2009, Mendola and three of his buddies decided to buy Buffalo’s national amateur soccer team, which should not be confused with purchasing the New York Yankees. The franchise had ceased operations and its owner was eager to get out and go back to England.
It cost the guys a few thousand apiece to call themselves sports owners. What was the worst that could happen? In another 10 years, they could be sitting around and laughing at their little adventure, saying that at least they had given it a shot.
Mendola, who was 27 and working in sports radio at the time, says the general reaction among people was one of “befuddlement.” You could count his new wife, Lacey, among the befuddled. She didn’t believe her husband’s crazy venture would last very long.
“No,” she said early this week, laughing at the memory. “No.”
Well, FC Buffalo is still going strong in its 13th year of existence. On Saturday, the Blitzers (yes, inspired by Wolf of CNN and UB fame) open their National Premier Soccer League regular season with a road contest against rival Cleveland SC at 7 p.m. at Baldwin Wallace.
The women’s team, which came into being last season, opens its 2022 campaign against Berlin (Canada) at 7 p.m. on Tuesday at Coyer Field on the Buffalo State campus.
“We keep growing, which is great,” Nick Mendola said. “We have a men’s team, a women’s team, a second women’s team. We’ll probably have a men’s second team after that. The women’s team has been embraced and is being supported like we couldn’t have predicted.
“I don’t where I’m going to find the money, but I need to hire some people, because it’s too much work,” he said. “Yeah, and that’s great.”
Still, while they’re growing, that doesn’t mean it’s an upward linear arc. The franchise still carries debt. What little money they make, Mendola pours back into the team. The men haven’t made the playoffs since 2013. The men will play at D’Youville this season because All High Stadium is being renovated.
The good news there is that they can sell beer at Dobson Field, which was illegal at All-High because it’s next to a school. Maybe the beer can inspire a few more avid soccer fans to come out. While attendance has been decent at around 500 a game for the men and women, Mendola wishes it were better.
“The thing we struggle with is Buffalo is a pro sports town,” he said. “We get it on our Twitter feed: ‘When are you going to go MLS? When are you going to the USL? Then we’ll come.’ Well, we need you now.”
Mendola would love having a professional team. The Blitzers are his labor of love, but after 13 years of dogged, often thankless dedication, it would be nice to see the franchise go to another level.
Last month, when the news broke about the Bills proposed $1.4 billion grass stadium, there was a buzz about the possibilities for local soccer. County executive Mark Poloncarz said there could be international friendlies between USA Soccer and European clubs at the new stadium.
The local media sought out Mendola, who conceded that the new stadium could conceivably be a boost for local soccer. But the idea of an MLS team playing there is a pipe dream. It’s unreasonable to think Buffalo could jump from an amateur level to the top pro level in the U.S. so quickly.
“There’s another league called the USL Championship,” Mendola said. “That’s the one that has rights to a team in Buffalo. They’ve been in touch with us. They’ve been working on building a stadium — soccer specific.
“I don’t think they’re going to do anything if they don’t get a stadium. They flew me down to Florida about three months ago just to talk. That’s the thing. We’ve got to make it to there. There’s no guarantee they’re going to want to work with us, or that MLS is ever going to work with us.”
People in the local soccer community dream of something bigger, a pro team that makes Buffalo relevant in the sport’s firmament. The question is whether that community is large enough and committed enough to sway the right people.
“The USL is a very good level for soccer,” said Tony Christiano, who coaches soccer and owns Mes Que, the popular soccer bar on Hertel Avenue. “My concern would be support. Could Buffalo support it?
“We can do miles more,” Christiano said. “I think Nick’s done a real nice job of promoting the brand and developing a product in Western New York that people are enjoying. Is there a higher ceiling? Of course, and I’m excited to see if he can do that.”
Mendola sees the possibilities. Detroit City FC, which was Buffalo’s rival in the amateur NPSL until 2019, joined USL Championship last year. Detroit plays in Keyworth Stadium, a 7,933-seat facility that underwent a crowd-based renovation and rehabilitation six years ago.
Detroit City FC was started by five Detroit residents. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The USL model, which would be similar to the Bisons in pro baseball, seems an ideal fit for Buffalo soccer. But the people who hold Buffalo’s rights in the league would surely like to see a more avid level of support in the community.
“It’s a great place for us to be,” Mendola said. “But our margin for error is zero this year. We have to come close to selling out every game. We’re at the point after 13 years where the club is not going to die.
“Can we stay alive long enough to reap the rewards of these professional leagues? Yes, we can, but can we do it without me having a heart attack? I don’t know. It’s taxing. I’ll be honest with you. I want to be around my kids now.”
He and Lacey have three children. Asher, 11, was born after FC Buffalo’s first year of competition. They have adopted 5-year-olds, Elliott and Gian Luigi. In addition to running the soccer teams, which doesn’t pay, Nick has a full-time gig writing for the NBC Sports website at Pro Soccer Talk.
Lacey isn’t worried about her husband’s dedicated heart, though it does get a bit overwhelming for him at times.
“Yes, yes. Absolutely,” she said. “He’s put enough time into it that he’s ready to either see it to its next thing or let it go. I don’t think he wants to let it go, because he’s not a quitter and I don’t know that I would let him just stop, because we’ve put so much into it.
“But there’s times where the easy way out would be to just not do it. Especially as our kids are getting older and they want to be around him, and there’s times when he just can’t. It’s like having two full-time jobs on top of being a parent.
“Sometimes, when I’m mad, it’s like ‘This is your volunteer work.’ You’re putting it ahead of your family and your kids. It is rewarding, but there are times when it’s like, I want to kick him.”
Nick admits that he’s thought more about giving it up in recent years. He thinks about all the hours ahead watching his sons grow up. Lacey is a first-grade teacher at PS 81 on Tacoma in Buffalo. It’s not easy being a teacher these days. Nick calls his wife a “dynamo”, who is dealing with the real stuff at work.
Mendola is a smart, sensitive, caring soul. FC Buffalo is his labor of love. He said it would be a thrill to see the team advance to the next stage. The ideal would be for the group with USL rights to bring the team into the pro league and let him run it.
“This new stadium, it’s coming at some point,” he said. “We hope they’re with us, we really do. I think it’s the right fit for us. I think they’re good people. I’ve enjoyed getting to know them. But there’s the chance that they look at us and say, ‘Well, FC Buffalo is cool, but we want to start the Buffalo Braves or something.
“We’re here. It’s a waiting game, and it’s a survival game. I hate saying it like that, but it is. In some ways, it’s amazing that we’re here.”
In the meantime, a new soccer season is here. The men, who open their home schedule on May 22 against Pittsburgh, have a new head coach, Ryan “Ozzie” Osborne, and some promising players, including Eamon McLaughlin of Northern Ireland and Joe Linley, an Englishman who was with Premier League club Aston Villa at one time.
Mendola says he has been energized by the women’s team, which won its division in its debut season last year before losing in the regionals. They’re led by Carissima Cutrona, who starred for the University at Buffalo and was a solid pro prospect before suffering a second ACL tear during her senior season at UB in 2018.
“We brought people out to sing and to cheer,” Mendola said. “The girls responded. I think we lost one game until the playoffs. We had almost 1,000 people in the playoffs.”
Nick says he can hear the fans singing in his head. That’s the true joy of soccer, the crowd and the chanting and singing and sheer love of the game. You can’t put a price tag on it. Really, how do you walk away?
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.