The heat is on for the Fresno Fuego, which begins the Premier Development League postseason in a Central Pacific Division playoff game at Chukchansi Park on Tuesday.
The Fuego’s regular-season accomplishments – a 10-match unbeaten streak, seven clean sheets, Christian Chaney’s 14 goals and Milton Blanco’s nine assists (both of which lead the PDL) – are all in the past. That’s exactly how Blanco, the 32-year-old Fuego veteran and captain, wants it ahead of what should be a contested match against a worthy opponent in the Burlingame Dragons.
“We know we’ve worked hard to put ourselves in this position,” Blanco said. “What matters is now and what we put on the field Tuesday.”
The Fuego could find themselves playing three matches in five days, with conference semifinals on Friday and the championship Saturday. Both games will be played in Tucson, Ariz.
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Kickoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Chukchansi Park.
It’s the fourth meeting between the teams this season, with the winner advancing to represent the Central Pacific division at the Western Conference Final Four in Tucson, Ariz., this weekend.
To get there, the Fuego is hoping for some help from its 12th man – Fire Squad Fresno, the club’s boisterous supporters’ group that takes over the outfield bleachers during matches. Fire Squad was loud and proud June 2, razzing Dragons players as the Fuego won 2-1 for their first victory against Burlingame.
“That was a huge win for us,” said Andrew Ueland, owner of Hook & Ladder in Clovis and a Fire Squad member. “Not only did we finally beat (Burlingame), but that’s when we knew we had a really good squad.”
Ueland and nearly 50 other Fire Squad members traveled to the Bay Area for Fresno’s match against the Dragons on July 8. The Dragons won 2-1, ending the Fuego’s unbeaten streak.
Despite that result, the Fuego players remain confident as they host the team’s first playoff match in six seasons.
“We’re a lot better. We’re more disciplined” this season, center back Trevor Spurgeon said during practice this week.
“And coming here is really hard with Fire Squad,” he added. “Going to Burlingame, that’s a different story. But now that they have to come to Fresno, that’s a game changer.”
Spurgeon might be right. The Fuego is 5-2 in postseason matches at home in franchise history, but just 1-5 on the road.
There are players that they go their whole career without winning a conference or without winning a championship, but these guys are staying focused and they know that they want to do something special.
Fuego captain Milton Blanco
Extra reserve – The Fuego will have some added help against the Dragons, with 2015 All-Western Conference selection Renato Bustamante re-joining the roster.
Bustamante, a midfielder who had seven goals and four assists for the Fuego last season, spent part of the summer playing with the National Premier Soccer League’s Tampa Bay Rowdies 2, whose season ended two weeks ago.
He made seven appearances for Rowdies 2, including six starts, over the 10-match season.
“The experience was great. It was very important for me to get out of my comfort zone and play in a challenging environment,” Bustamante said.
“I’ve been witnessing the party the (Fuego) have been having all year, and once I knew I could make a comeback and help them in any way I could, I didn’t hesitate one second.”
2016 Regular season Fresno Fuego overall record: 10-3-1, 1st in Southwest Division with 30 points May 6: L, 0-1 vs. Burlingame Dragons (5,237 attendance) May 14: L, 0-3 (forfeit) vs. SF City FC (3,296) May 19: W, 6-2 vs. Las Vegas Mobsters (2,549) May 21: W, 2-1, vs. Las Vegas Mobsters (2,405) June 2: W, 2-1, vs. Burlingame Dragons (3,103) June 4: W, 1-0, at SoCal Seahorses June 9: W, 2-0, at BYU Cougars June 11: W, 3-1, at BYU Cougars June 18: W, 1-0, at Las Vegas Mobsters June 25: T, 0-0, at San Diego Zest June 30: W, 2-0, vs. BYU Cougars (3,291) July 2: W, 1-0, vs. SoCal Seahorses (4,212) July 8: L, 1-2, at Burlingame Dragons July 10: W, 2-0 at SF City FC *Total attendance: 24,093; 3,442 average per game
Playoff picture – Top-seeded FC Tucson (11-1-2) will host the conference semifinals and championship this weekend at Kino North Stadium. Tucson earned a bye into the semifinals by finishing the regular season as the conference’s best team with 35 points.
In addition to the Fuego-Dragons match, two other spots will be decided in Tuesday’s divisional playoff round: The Calgary Foothills will host Sounders U-23 in the Northwest Division; and San Diego Zest FC kicks off against FC Golden State Force in the Southwest Division.
The first-round winners advance to Friday’s conference semifinals. The first match will be played at 6 p.m., with FC Tucson hosting the other semifinalist at 8 p.m.
The Western Conference championship is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Saturday.
The four conference champions (Western, Eastern, Southern, Central) advance to the PDL semifinals July 24-31. The PDL championship is scheduled for Aug. 6.
PDL Western Conference playoffs
SOUTHWEST DIVISION PLAYOFF: FRESNO FUEGO VS. BURLINGAME DRAGONS
- Kickoff: 7 p.m. Tuesday at Chukchansi Park
- Records: Fuego 10-3-1, Dragons 7-5-2
- Last meeting: Fresno lost 2-1 at Burlingame on July 8, ending its 10-match unbeaten streak.
- Season series: Dragons lead 2-1
- Webcast/TV: Youtube.com/CMACFresno (Xfinity 94/AT&T U-Verse 99)
- Tickets: $8 for youth general admission, $10 for adults and Fire Squad, $13 Phoenix Club
Fuego Postseason History
- 11-1-2 regular season record, won Southwest Division with 35 points; No. 1 seed in Western Conference bracket
- West semifinal: L, 1-2 vs. Portland Timbers (at Ventura County - site of Western Conference Final Four)
- 13-0-3, won Southwest Division with 42 points, No. 1 seed
- West semifinal: W, 3-1 vs. Victoria Highlanders (at Fresno)
- West final: L, 0-1 vs. Kitsap Pumas (went on to win PDL crown)
- 9-5-2, 2nd in Southwest Division with 29 points, No. 4 seed
- West semifinal: L, 0-3 vs. Tacoma Tide (at Fresno)
- 10-4-2, won Southwest Division with 32 points, No. 2 seed
- West semifinal: W, 4-1 vs. Tacoma (OT) (at Fresno)
- West final: W, 3-0 vs. BYU Cougars
- National semifinal: L, 0-1 at Laredo (went on to win PDL crown)
- 10-5-1, 3rd in Southwest Division with 31 points, No. 4 seed
- West semifinal: L, 1-2 vs. Orange County Blue Star (at Southern California)
- 11-5-2, 2nd in Southwest Division with 35 points, No. 3 seed
- West semifinal: W, 2-1 vs. Cascade Surge (at Fresno)
- West final: W, 2-1 vs. Orange County Blue Star (at Fresno)
- National semifinal: L, 3-0 at Boulder
- 14-4-0, won Southwest Division with 42 points, No. 2 seed
- West semifinal: W, 1-0 vs. Spokane Shadow (at Spokane)
- West final: L, 0-2 vs. Orange County Blue Star