The Fuego have lined up two preseason matches against USL PRO clubs in what could be a glimpse of the future of professional soccer in Fresno.
The Fuego will host Sacramento Republic FC on Feb. 7 in the inaugural Highway 99 Derby and two weeks later will play Los AngelesGalaxy II on Feb. 21. Both matches will be played at 7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park.
The Fuego have played in the Premier Development League since their inception in 2003, and general manager Jeremy Schultz said he’s positioning the club to potentially make a move up soccer’s professional hierarchy.
“It’s my personal goal to take Fresno Fuego to the next level,” he said. “I want this club to be a USL PRO team.”
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Two years ago, Major League Soccer and USL PRO reached an agreement to merge MLS reserves into the USL PRO structure through minor-league affiliates. Republic FC is the USL PRO affiliate for the San Jose Earthquakes and Portland Timbers FC of MLS. LA Galaxy II is affiliated with Galaxy.
Fresno could do something similar in soccer, especially with Republic FC vying to become the next expansion MLS franchise, with a proposed stadium site selected in the city’s railyard in downtown. With all but one of the six MLS expansions slots decided, Sacramento is in the running with Minneapolis and Las Vegas.
One thing is for certain: The USL PRO friendlies next month provide Fuego officials an opportunity to gauge public interest and if Fresno can support that level of soccer.
Republic FC will be visiting Fresno for the first time. The Fuego lost 6-0 to Sacramento last year in a third-round Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup match at Cosumnes River College. It was a heated contest that saw two red cards and a post-game shoving match break out before a sold-out crowd.
“Our city is the consummate underdog in California and we’re excited to measure ourselves against an extremely talented Sacramento club that is on the brink of becoming the next Major League Soccer franchise,” Schultz said.
Said Republic FC technical director Graham Smith: “The Fresno Fuego is an exceptionally run club, and as we know from past experience, provide great talent and competition. We look forward to visiting Fresno, its fans and being a part of the inaugural 99 Derby.”
The game against Galaxy II is a rematch of last year’s preseason friendly — the Fuego lost 2-1 —that preceded the Central California Cup between MLS clubs San Jose and Los Angeles.
Tickets for both matches range from $6 to $16 apiece and can be purchased online or at the Chukchansi Park box office.