Long a town dominated by college and high school sports, Fresno soon may be swooning over a professional soccer team of its own.
Investors led by businessman Ray Beshoff have applied to the United Soccer League for an expansion franchise. Approval could bring a team to the city by March 2018.
“We’re in the final stages of crossing all the T’s and dotting the I’s on a contract,” said Beshoff, who owns numerous car dealerships including Mercedes-Benz of Fresno at Palm and Herndon avenues with co-owner Scott Biehl.
The USL said this week that Beshoff’s proposal was “very strong.”
“Fresno is a very attractive market with nearly 1 million residents in the region, and a strong base of support for professional soccer,” the USL stated through a spokesperson. “Given its relative proximity to other successful USL markets, Fresno also creates the potential for new future local rivalries. We are working with a potential ownership group to finalize an agreement, and will provide further details at the appropriate time.”
Fresno has long been considered a hotbed for professional soccer, in part because of the gate success of the Fresno Fuego of the fourth-tier Premier Development League and the amateur club’s booming fan culture.
USL teams are on the second tier of the American soccer pyramid, equal to the North American Soccer League and just below Major League Soccer clubs such as the Los Angeles Galaxy and San Jose Earthquakes.
The USL announced Thursday the creation of a third-division league, filling a void created when its current alliance was promoted to equal footing with the NASL. But the Fresno club would play in the second division.
I thought it was such a shame to have such a good city, with nice restaurants, good people, good culture and growing population that is 58 percent Hispanic and there’s no soccer? I’m thinking there’s something wrong with that.
Ray Beshoff, lead investor in a group that wants to bring a USL expansion franchise to Fresno
The leadership of the proposed USL franchise is not the same group that runs the Fuego. But that doesn’t mean the Fuego would be extinguished.
At the very least, the 15-year-old PDL franchise would continue to provide opportunities for homegrown talent to make the jump to the professional ranks, according to Fuego owner Chris Cummings.
“The Fuego aren’t going anywhere,” he said.
Beshoff, Cummings and Fuego General Manager Jeremy Schultz all agree that a USL team would provide a positive boost for the greater Fresno area.
“We’re all on the same page,” Beshoff said. “Let’s bring professional soccer to Fresno. Let’s do it for the kids. Let’s do it for the community. Let’s create something that Fresno can be proud of.”
Schultz echoed that with a soccer analogy: “You’re only as good as the guys next to you.”
Fuego ownership had been high on the USL’s list for expansion for nearly a decade, Schultz told The Bee in 2015. However, it was never economically viable for the team to cough up the $5 million expansion fee.
3,951 Fresno Fuego average attendance for eight home matches in the 2016 PDL season, which would have ranked ninth among USL teams.
That’s where Beshoff comes in.
Beshoff, an England native who fancies English Premier League club Liverpool and the MLS Earthquakes, has gotten to know Fresno during the past seven years after purchasing his local dealership. But it wasn’t until two years ago that he started to cultivate the USL proposal, a move he calls a “no-brainer.”
“I thought it was such a shame to have such a good city, with nice restaurants, good people, good culture and growing population that is 58 percent Hispanic and there’s no soccer? I’m thinking there’s something wrong with that.
“I’m from England. I used to run around with players and used to play a bit myself in the school days so I’m familiar with soccer and the culture it brings and what it can do for cities and communities, especially one that doesn’t have any competition with professional sports” aside from minor league baseball.
So what has to happen?
Fresno’s bid already would have three key ingredients to make a USL franchise thrive: the financials, an established soccer culture, and a midsize market without a major-sports pro team.
What’s missing is a home stadium.
In 2015, the USL set a requirement that all clubs must own or be the primary tenant of a soccer-specific stadium by 2020. Sacramento Republic FC, which entered the USL in 2014 (with sights on the MLS), debuted at Hughes Stadium at Sacramento City College before renovating Bonney Field (now known as Papa Murphy’s Park) at Cal Expo into a 8,000-seat soccer-specific venue.
There are multiple indicators that fans would turn out if the stadium issue is resolved and the bid proves successful. In 2016, the Fuego averaged 3,951 fans for their seven home matches – one of the best marks in the PDL and eighth-best when compared to the USL’s 29 teams.
Exhibitions featuring professional Mexican League clubs annually draw well in excess of 10,000 fans to Fresno’s downtown Chukchansi Park, home to the Fuego and the Triple-A minor league baseball Fresno Grizzlies.
Beshoff hopes to bring more of those types of matches to town, even flirting with the idea of a visit by English or other European clubs. He was impressed when FC Cincinnati, one of the USL’s most popular clubs, drew 35,061 fans for a July 2016 exhibition against Crystal Palace of the English Premier League. It is the largest crowd to witness a soccer match in Ohio’s history.
The USL kicked off its 2017 season with 30 teams, 10 owned by MLS franchises. Fresno would be an independent club and potentially among two or more expansion teams next year. Nashville SC is already approved for 2018, with San Diego, Baltimore and Virginia also pursuing bids.