Marek Warszawski

Warszawski: Fuego fan group Fire Squad Fresno loaded with passion for soccer club and city

Fire Squad Fresno founder Jordan Wiebe, center, leads the march across Inyo Street to Thursday’s Fresno Fuego game at Chukchansi Park. A booster group that started with four members in December 2014 had grown to 141 by the final game of the 2015 season with an overall cheering section that contained more than 200.
Fire Squad Fresno founder Jordan Wiebe, center, leads the march across Inyo Street to Thursday’s Fresno Fuego game at Chukchansi Park. A booster group that started with four members in December 2014 had grown to 141 by the final game of the 2015 season with an overall cheering section that contained more than 200. ezamora@fresnobee.com

At 6:07 p.m. the first drumbeat sounds, and slowly the crowd assembled at Tioga-Sequoia’s beer garden in downtown Fresno begins to stir. Time for the members of Fire Squad Fresno to empty their pints and settle their tabs. It’s time to march.

One drum becomes two, and two become four. Together they’re pounding out a steady rhythm as Jared Bruce, the club’s thick-shouldered and burly voiced capo, begins yelling into a megaphone. For the next 2 1/2 hours, he rarely stops.

“Let’s go Fuego!” Boom-boom Boom-boom-boom “Let’s go Fuego!”

Others join in as Fire Squad Fresno crosses Inyo Street and heads up Home Run Alley toward the back entrance to Chukchansi Park. They number between 80 and 90, including two dozen who signed up that evening, and most are wearing red, black and white Fresno Fuego jerseys with matching red and black scarves.

Some wave large flags. Others tote placards depicting Day of the Dead skulls, their official logo. The drums beat on, and everyone chants in unison. Once the squad gets through the turnstiles and into the stadium, someone sets off a smoke bomb.

Other soccer fans attending Thursday night’s exhibition between the Fuego and Armenian club FC Ararat Yerevan make way for the traveling cacophony while looking on with curiosity and awe. Some hold up cellphones to record the procession.

Fire Squad Fresno marches all the way around the concourse before settling into the final section in right field behind the south goal. There, the devotees continue to chant, pound drums and cheer for their beloved Fuego for the duration of the match.

What does soccer culture in Fresno look and sound like in 2016?

You just got a pretty good sense.

In a time when attendance for local college and pro teams has declined or stagnated, interest in soccer seems to be growing.

That’s evidenced by the 3,000-plus fans the Fuego averaged last season (an increase of 800 from 2014), the 16,821 who crammed into The Chuk in July for a Liga MX clash and perhaps most of all by the formation and growth of Fire Squad Fresno.

Supporters’ groups are part of the culture of soccer. Every club with rabid fans has one. During the Fuego’s 13-year history, there have been other congregations. Just none that, in the words of Fire Squad founder Jordan Wiebe, “were organized and focused on getting behind our team, being proud of our city and reflecting something really positive about Fresno.”

Before Fire Squad Fresno, Wiebe formed the Fresno Gooners – a local support group for English Premier League club Arsenal that draws 25 to 40 people for televised matches at Peeve’s Public House, even those that begin at 4:45 a.m. on a Saturday.

Wiebe, 30, grew up in Reedley and attended Fresno Pacific. He was a fan of many sports, basketball and the San Antonio Spurs in particular, before catching the soccer bug while attending EPL matches during a year he lived in London.

“I’ve always been a sports nut,” Wiebe said, “but soccer just had something different about it, and the commitment and passion it took to be part of something bigger than yourself is just really, really cool.”

Fire Squad Fresno formed in December 2014 with four original members. By the final game of last season, they had 141 and a cheering section that contained more than 200.

The goal for this year is to have 225 members by season’s end. For $50 members get a ticket to every PDL home game (plus the March 3 exhibition against Sacramento Republic FC), a parking pass, an official scarf and a pint glass.

Not to mention being part of Fresno’s loudest, rowdiest rooting section, one that also has appeared at matches involving the Fresno Freeze, Fresno State and Fresno Pacific.

“I have not met a person who has not had a great time coming to hang out with us,” said Bruce, the capo or chant leader. “That’s not even being arrogant. It’s just that much fun to kind of have that childlike freedom to just scream and yell and sing and jump and dance. Just let go of all the other stuff and have fun for two hours.”

Women such as Nyrie Karkazian make up about 25 percent of the group: “It isn’t even really about soccer. What I like most is the sense of community and supporting something local.”

Fuego general manager Jeremy Schultz, whose aim is to elevate the club to United Soccer League-level status, believes the supporters’ club is another sign the market is ready for pro soccer.

“This is my ninth season and since they came in last year, the atmosphere and culture has changed,” Schultz said. “Our overall fan base is still growing, but that pocket of 200 people is making such an impact on where we’re going.”

Fire Squad Fresno operates independently of the Fuego, but not its founder. Schultz was so impressed with Wiebe’s vision and mentality that he hired the graphic designer as the team’s full-time marketing and design coordinator.

“Isn’t that the goal, to do what you love?” asked Channelle Wiebe, Jordan’s wife. “He gets to drink beer at his job – and play drums.”

Speaking of drums, the pounding and chanting continues throughout the match and seldom stops until Fire Squad Fresno marches out of the stadium and back to Tioga-Sequoia, where a few Fuego players join the group.

It’s all part of the new Fresno soccer culture.

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