Behind a veteran squad and a supporters group that never let up on the chants, nor on the drums, the Fresno Fuego escaped with a 2-2 draw against Sacramento Republic FC on Saturday night at chilly, drizzly Chukchansi Park.
Before the match, in a gathering at nearby Peeve’s Public House, about 80 people turned out as part of a promotion spurred by Fire Squad Fresno, the Fuego’s supporters, or boosters, group. As the match neared, they then marched from the Fulton Mall pub to the stadium following the beat of banging drums and behind a huge Fuego flag.
“Fuego incorporates what Fresno is,” said 27-year-old Fire Squad Fresno member Damian Reyna, who was sporting a black luchador mask with red and white trim.
“It’s all homegrown. It’s something we can take pride in.”
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It brought a lively environment that left Fuego General Manager Jeremy Schultz optimistic.
“It was a great experience and Fire Squad Fresno came out in numbers and created a great environment,” he said, even while admitting rainy weather earlier in the day may have scared a few fans away.
Still, nearly 4,000 fans braved the cold, wet weather for the preseason exhibition as the Fuego battled for 90 minutes, rallied and forced a tie in what was billed as the first in the Highway 99 Derby series.
Both teams fielded their first teams to start the match, but neither side could find the back of the net in the opening 45 minutes.
Fresno pushed into the attacking third early behind the play of Paul Islas and Jose Cuevas on the wings and Renato Bustamante inside, but couldn’t get through Republic FC goalie Patrick McClain, who stopped everything coming his way.
Things got chippy when Fuego center back Cody Ellison tackled a Republic forward from behind in the 18th minute and was given the match’s first yellow card. A total of five yellow cards were given out, three to Fresno and two to Sacramento.
After halftime, both squads made their share of changes to get a better look at trialists.
The switch worked for Sacramento as it took a 2-0 lead on goals from Australian midfielder Richie Cardozo.
But down 2-0, the Fuego fans and players didn’t let their flame burn out.
Newcomer Daniel Kuczynski put Fresno on the board after Sacramento's second-half goalie Dom Jakubek fumbled a routine save. Kuczynski recovered the ball and poked it in for the score.
In the 86th, Kuczynski again found himself at the right place at the right time, as the ball dropped just in front of goal and he slotted it home into the corner for a 2-2 tie.
“It’s a great result,” Fuego coach Scott Alcorn said.
“To go down 2-0, empty our bench and come back. That’s resiliency.”
Sacramento coach Predrag Radosavljevic would’ve preferred something better for his defending USL PRO champions.
“Obviously I was disappointed with our first team in the first half,” he said. “We weren’t sharp and weren’t ready to play, but it’s the first preseason game.”