The Fresno Fuego is ready for a busy summer of fútbol, which gets underway this weekend.
It all begins Saturday with the Premier Development League season opener against the Burlingame Dragons at Chukchansi Park. Four days later, the Fuego will host La Máquina FC in the first round of the U.S. Open Cup.
The Fuego will tap their resources from a 31-player pool that still has room to add a few more, according to general manager Jeremy Schultz. The Fuego are coming off a 10-3-1 season that saw them win the PDL’s Central Pacific Division crown.
Anchoring the club is a group of familiar faces. Most notable is MLS veteran and 33-year-old captain Milton Blanco, back with the club for a second straight season.
May 6 Fuego’s PDL season opener against Burlingame at Chukchansi Park
Despite receiving offers from professional clubs, Blanco said he chose to stay in his hometown because he wants to help other local players reach the pros – and maybe earn another trophy also.
“I don’t enjoy playing for anybody else like I do for the Fuego. Being able to put on the jersey is an honor,” he says. “I’ve had my time. I’ve had a good career and there were a lot of people doing their time to help me get the career I did have. Now that I’m back, it’s my time to help my teammates and brothers get that opportunity.”
Blanco last year had a team-high six assists and was instrumental in the breakout success of forward Christian Chaney, who finished with 14 goals on the year. Chaney, who was a finalist for the league’s Most Valuable Player, went on to sign a USL contract with Sacramento Republic FC of the USL.
Joining Blanco in the midfielders are veterans Abraham Campos and Jose “Chiva” Cuevas and former Fresno Pacific standout Renato Bustamante.
Fresno returns experienced defenders in Trevor Spurgeon, Alex Culwell, Sergi Nus, Bruno Brumati and Elijah Martin; as well as midfielders Tony Torres, Joao Da Rosa, Anthony Velarde, Diego Casillas and Jonathan Colunga; and forwards Joey Chica and Fellipe Souza.
Goalkeeper Agustin Rey had seven shutouts for the Fuego a year ago and is back for a second season, though it’s unknown if he will start or share time with newcomer Ximo Miralles.
Now that I’m back, it’s my time to help my teammates and brothers get that opportunity.
Milton Blanco, MLS veteran and Fuego midfielder
Miralles, 21, is a native of Spain who spent 10 years in Villareal FC’s Youth Academy. He plays collegiately at Clemson, where he started 21 matches and had 10 shutouts as a sophomore last fall.
Miralles is one of 13 newcomers. Others include forwards Etiandro Tavares, Elliott Otmani and Carlos Delgadillo.
Tavares spent last season playing in the USL with RSL Monarchs. Otmani is the reigning Metro-Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament MVP after leading Rider University to the title; and Delgadillo joins Fresno from FC Tucson after helping the club win the 2016 PDL Western Conference championship.
There’s also a shot for younger, local talent to develop in Andres Rios (Chowchilla, Fresno City), Isaiah Asencio (Fresno High, Fresno Pacific), Carlos Valdovinos (Lindsay, San Jose State), and Luis Hernandez (Madera, Burlingame Dragons).
Coach Brian Zwaschka said he’s expecting the Fuego’s mix of old and new players to evolve into a competitive club.
“We have a core group that we’re trying to establish,” he said. “A few of our new players that have recently joined us we brought in because we believe they can impact in spaces we need.
“We feel good where we’re at. Burlingame is in the same boat as our opener. We just need to stay busy and on the right track.”
2017 Fresno Fuego roster breakdown
- 18 returners
- 13 newcomers
- 16 players with roots in the San Joaquin Valley
- 13 with roots outside of the U.S., including nine foreign-based players (Brazil, Mexico, Spain, Peru, Guinea-Bissau, Scotland, Serbia and France)
- 8 current or former Fresno Pacific players
- 10 current or former NCAA Division I players
- 23 with PDL experience, five former USL players and one MLS veteran
- 10 players over 23 years of age (PDL clubs can have a maximum of eight players over 23 on their 26-man roster; match day rosters are cut to 18).
- 21 players age 23 or younger
PREMIER DEVELOPMENT LEAGUE: FRESNO FUEGO VS. BURLINGAME DRAGONS
- When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, May 6
- Where: Chukchansi Park
- 2016 records: Fuego 10-4-1; Dragons 8-5-3
- Series/last meeting: Dragons lead 5-1-1/Dragons won 3-2 in extra time July 19, 2016.
- Tickets: $6 youth general admission, $8 adult general admission and Fire Squad Fresno section, $11 ESPN Club. Fans in attendance will receive custom Fresno Fuego flags.
- Of note: The CUSD Unified Team will face Fresno Freeze in an exhibition at 5:30 p.m. The CUSD Unified Team, made up of players with and without special needs, was chosen recently to represent the MLS San Jose Earthquakes in a home and away series against LA Galaxy’s Unified Team this season. A fireworks show is scheduled immediately following the end of the Fuego match.