Pro soccer is coming to Fresno.
The United Soccer League confirmed that it has approved an expansion franchise to begin play in 2018, bringing pro soccer to central California in what also is a World Cup year.
“The USL is thrilled to be in the final stages of launching a new club in Fresno, as part of the league’s broader expansion efforts in the West,” league officials said in an email this week.
A formal announcement revealing a team nickname, field and select personnel is planned for late June or early July.
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The man behind the bid is lead investor Ray Beshoff, who along with Scott Biehl owns Mercedes-Benz of Fresno. Beshoff submitted what was called a “very strong” application earlier this year after years watching the city’s potential for a pro soccer franchise grow.
Beshoff said he has paid an expansion fee in excess of $5 million.
“Everything ended up great,” Beshoff said, “and now we’re excited and going to spend the next couple of months bringing together a world class club.”
4 California teams that will be in the USL’s Western Conference for 2018 with the announcement of Fresno as an expansion franchise
The Fresno club will be the 32nd in the USL, with Nasvhille SC also starting up next year. Fresno will be the fourth USL side in California, joining LA Galaxy II, Sacramento Republic FC and Orange County SC (formerly known as OC Blues), and play in the Western Conference.
“Fresno is a great location for other teams in proximity,” USL Vice President Leonardo Santiago said. “From a league standpoint competitively, we’re looking to build those rivalries city to city, where clubs and supporters don't have to travel very far to get more of those derby games.”
USL teams play 32 regular-season games beginning this season; each faces conference rivals home and away, with the remaining matches against a regional opponent.
Three homefield options are under consideration for the short term, according to Beshoff.
All may require changes to the field, seating, locker rooms, offices or more and one could develop into long-term home.
Among the sites is Fresno State’s Soccer & Lacrosse Field and there also is the possibility of using Bulldog Stadium on a limited basis. Beshoff and university officials have started the process of negotiating a memoradum of understanding, athletic department sources told The Bee.
Another is Chukchansi Park, the downtown Triple-A baseball stadium that is home to the Fresno Fuego of the amateur Premier Development League. USL clubs Reno, Tulsa, Harrisburg and Louisville play in minor league baseball stadiums.
A formal announcement ceremony revealing team name, location, and select personnel, is planned for later this summer, taking place in late June or early July.
Scheduling conflicts would have to be resolved in a shared-use agreement.
The USL season runs March through November – which would include the entire minor league baseball season and parts of Fresno State’s lacrosse (spring) and women’s soccer (fall) seasons.
Beshoff remains optimistic with regard to meeting the league’s requirement for clubs to own, or be the primary tenant, of a soccer-specific venue by 2020. Specifications include a field at least 110 by 70 yards with minimum seating of 5,000.
As we move into new markets, that (soccer-specific) venue is an important piece.
Leonardo Santiago, USL Vice President of Marketing and Communications
“We need to have our own place. A place we consider home,” he said. “It depends on how we’ll get in first so we can play, but we’ll see how the relationships work.”
The USL affirmed it will enforce its 2020 standard for expansion clubs, citing it as crucial for clubs to remain in its top division league (the league will launch a second division league in 2019).
“As we move into new markets, that (soccer-specific) venue is an important piece,” Santiago said. “It can be an existing place that can showcase soccer the right way or a new development.”
It’s now a top priority for Beshoff.
“Our first job was to get the franchise confirmed and we’ve got the approval all done.,” he said. “Now we go to stage 2: Where are we going to play.”
Economic impacts can be tough to gauge, but Republic FC, as an example, employs about 35 full-time staff and another 100 part-timers on game days.
Construction of a new facility, or modifications to an existing site, also could create short-term jobs.
Surrounding businesses also should see benefits, given fans circulating for 16 home games as well as potential preseason, exhibition or postseason matches.
An early surge also could be seen given that it will be a World Cup year, providing an opportunity to build off the international tournament’s popularity among soccer fans.
“This is a very exciting time in Fresno,” Beshoff said. “Next year is going to be a great one for the soccer community.”
While the team nickname remains to be determined, and fans are welcome to offer ideas, it will not be the Fuego, who are owned by a different group.
The Fuego fans are an important deal and the name has a lot of meaning to a lot of people, but we may have to spin it. … I don’t want people to be worried about what the team will be called. I want people to trust the fact that we’re bringing professional soccer to Fresno.
Ray Beshoff, lead investor behind the Fresno’s USL expansion franchise
But the two groups also have been collaborating to bring pro soccer to central California, so an affiliate arrangement is possible.
“We have a lot of things that will elevate the Fuego,” Beshoff said. “I’m working very hard with (Fuego owner) Chris Cummings and (General Manager) Jeremy Schultz to unify soccer in Fresno. We all want to do the right thing and find the best way forward.
“We want to pick a name that the current Fuego fans and soccer fans will get behind. The Fuego fans are an important deal and the name has a lot of meaning to a lot of people, but we may have to spin it.”
“I want to get the city excited. I don’t want people to be worried about what the team will be called. I want people to trust the fact that we’re bringing professional soccer to Fresno.”