For all of Fresno’s potential as a professional soccer market, this was no penalty kick into an empty net.
Feelings could’ve been hurt. Allegiances could’ve been divided. There was every capacity for an awkward marriage.
Thanks to some deft decision-making by the new club’s front office, that won’t be happening. Instead, the entire Fresno soccer community stands together under one banner.
The entire Fresno soccer community stands together under one banner.
Which already feels like a victory – eight months before Fresno Football Club plays its first United Soccer League match.
Pro soccer may be new to Fresno, but the amateur-level Fuego have been around since 2003. Over 15 seasons they’ve cultivated a sizable and devoted following. By that I mean average attendance of nearly 4,000, (3,951 in 2016, the last figure available) including a rabid supporters group (Fire Squad Fresno) whose membership has swelled to 550.
All to watch a roster of mainly college kids play a three-month schedule in the fourth-division PDL.
So when the investor group headed by Ray Beshoff announced it was bringing the second-division USL to town, many of those fans shared the same reaction:
Why not the Fuego? Why do we have to support a new club, with new colors, instead of the one we’ve been supporting all along?
The simplest answer: The USL has shown interest in the Fuego for years, but team ownership waited too long to reciprocate.
So long that joining the USL became increasingly expensive (since 2012, the league’s expansion fees have reportedly skyrocketed from $250,000 to $5 million). So long that other folks recognized Fresno’s potential as a soccer market and seized that opportunity.
“Fresno has a great soccer vibe, and the next step up is the USL,” said Frank Yallop, the longtime Major League Soccer coach and former English Premier League and MLS player whom Beshoff hired as Fresno FC’s general manager.
“They do a fantastic job with the Fuego, but I think the fans here are starving for year-round soccer and professional soccer.”
It’s been 16 years of amateur soccer. Now let’s make it a lifetime of pro soccer.
Frank Yallop, Fresno FC general manager
One only has to look at the five-figure crowds for exhibitions between Liga MX and MLS clubs to know there’s pent-up demand. Now it’s Yallop’s responsibility to hire a coach and assemble a roster that’s competitive and appealing to this diverse market.
Fuego fans are welcomed into the fold as well. The amateur club will become Fresno FC’s development squad with Beshoff and the investor group assuming the Fuego’s ownership reins from a group headed by Chris Cummings (who is also selling the Fresno Grizzlies) by next spring.
The Fuego will continue to play in the PDL, possibly as an undercard to Fresno FC matches.
“That was a big part of it for me,” Yallop said. “I have a lot of respect for the Fuego and what they’ve done. The last thing you want to do is come into town and say, ‘OK, you’re out.’ That’s not what’s happening here.”
Fuego players tend to be from the Valley, a big part of the club’s appeal. Now there’s an opportunity to rise through the ranks and get called up to Fresno FC.
“If someone on the Fuego is good enough, they’ll make that step,” Yallop said.
“I want that to happen. Will it happen? That’s up to the player. But I think it’s good when hometown kids play for the hometown professional club. There’s no better story than that.”
Fresno FC also strengthened its local ties by bringing aboard Fuego general manager Jeremy Schultz and director of marketing Jordan Wiebe.
No one knows the Valley soccer scene better than Schultz, the Fuego’s GM since 2008 (as well as minority owner). He will become assistant GM of Fresno FC.
And few, if any, are more in tune with the local culture than Wiebe, a graphic designer who co-founded Fire Squad Fresno and parlayed that success into a job with the Fuego.
“I really like both guys,” Yallop said. “It was an easy transition for them and me.”
Chukchansi Park, at least for the first two seasons, also eases the transition. Even though there were discussions with Fresno State, downtown is the better option. Especially with Fulton Street soon opening to traffic and, hopefully, commerce.
The playing surface will be slightly larger than when the stadium has hosted Liga MX exhibitions. Yallop is hoping for field dimensions of 112 yards long and 74 wide, which ought to please soccer purists as well as bring the action closer to the main grandstand.
Nonetheless, Chukchansi Park is designed for baseball with the Fresno Grizzlies as primary tenant. And by 2020, USL clubs are required to be the owner or primary tenant of a soccer-specific venue with a minimum 5,000 seats.
“The people here have been great to work with – there’s a great chance of us getting something more permanent,” Yallop said. “It’s been 16 years of amateur soccer. Now let’s make it a lifetime of pro soccer.”
By becoming part of the existing soccer community rather than co-opt it, Fresno FC has already scored its first win.