For Gaston Cignetti, the Fresno Fuego are more than just a team. They are family.
Cignetti is the captain and arguably has endured and experienced more than anyone else on the soccer club — and that includes longtime members of the staff.
That’s because the starting center midfielder, now 35 in a league of mostly 20-somethings, has been with franchise since it started in 2003.
“This guy bleeds our colors,” General Manager Jeremy Schultz said. “It’s a contagious spirit. He’s as homegrown as they get.”
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Born and raised in Argentina, Cignetti came to Fresno as a 21-year-old footballer looking for somewhere to play.
He pestered Fresno Pacific men’s soccer coach Jaime Ramirez for a spot and finally got his wish.
“I’ve known Gaston since the first day he set foot in Fresno,” Ramirez said. “He was very persistent. I finally relented and said, ‘Sure, come on by and train with us and we’ll go from there.’ ”
Cignetti didn’t disappoint.
“He played all out. It’s just his style,” Ramirez said.
Cignetti’s work ethic earned him a full-ride scholarship to Fresno Pacific, where he played alongside Fabricio Codeceira, Orlando Ramirez and Eddie Gutierrez (also future Fuego alums) and helped the program to its best season in 2003 and perhaps the top four-year run in program history.
“(Cignetti) was probably the best ball-winner, controlling midfielder in the country, Division I, II and NAIA, bar none,” Ramirez said.
That same style has kept Cignetti, who works as an insurance broker, as a mainstay with the Fuego.
After his junior season in college, the Fresno Fuego launched and Cignetti (with Codeceira, Gutierrez, Orlando Ramirez and coach Jaime Ramirez) signed on.
In the franchise’s inaugural 2003 campaign, Cignetti helped the Fuego win the Southwest Division title in the Premier Development League’s Western Conference and a spot in the U.S. Open Cup. The club reached the round of 16, where it lost 3-1 to the L.A. Galaxy of Major League Soccer at the Home Depot Center.
In 2005, he was drafted by the United Soccer League’s Rochester Rhinos and even played with a lower-division club in Germany. After an injury, he returned to play in Fresno.
“I always wanted to come back and be involved with Fuego but I never thought it would have this kind of impact,” Cignetti said.
Over the years, he’s helped the team to three other division championships (2007, ’11, ’13), with the 2011 club unbeaten in the regular season at 13-0-3. And he’s also seen the lows, with the Fuego suffering its first losing season in franchise history last year.
Work is already being done this season to prevent another sub-par finish. The Fuego (2-0-1) are unbeaten in three games and Cignetti leads the way with four goals and three assists.
On Wednesday, he was named PDL player of the week after scoring three goals and one assist in back-to-back weekend wins at Ventura County (4-0) and the OC Blues (2-0).
Cignetti plays, not like many others in league with hopes of signing a pro contract, but because he loves the game, the team and what it has brought to him.
“Every day I take it one day at a time because I enjoy this so much and I can’t imagine myself not being a part of this team,” he said.