Sports

Fresno FC returns for Year 2 with eye on USL Championship playoffs

Now that professional soccer in Fresno has successfully launched, the next step is winning.

Which is something Fresno FC plans to do a lot more of in Year 2, and the early returns are good.

Carrying momentum from two fruitful road matches, the Foxes kick off their home season Saturday night at Chukchansi Park against Reno 1868 FC. With FresYes Fest and an AlleyWave party happening nearby, downtown Fresno is sure to be hopping.

Foxes center back Mickey Daly hopes the energy can match last year’s opener, played in front of 7,769 fans.

“The Vegas match last year was unbelievable, so hopefully we get a repeat of that,” Daly said. “We’ve started off already with four points. Hopefully the town is buzzing and will come out and support.”

The Foxes were a successful home side last season with nine victories, seven draws and four losses in United Soccer League play. Road woes (2-6-9) were the primary reason Los Zorros finished 14 points out of the playoffs and 12th in the Western Conference.

Coach Adam Smith is counting on a beefed-up roster, combined with a more balanced schedule and better travel arrangements, to propel Fresno FC up the standings.

“There’s some key pieces that I was missing last year,” said Smith, listing an experienced striker, more speed “in wide areas” and “a destroyer-type midfield boss.”

Smith and general manager Frank Yallop spent the offseason scouting and signing those key pieces, who turned out to be Jaime Chavez (experienced striker), Jackson (Brazilian wide speed) and Seth Moses (midfield boss). Another new signee, Arun Basuljevic, already has two goals.

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Fresno Fox player Ramon M. Del Campo, center right, and teammates run through drills at Fresno City College, Mar. 20, 2019, in preparation for their season home opener at Chukchansi Park this Saturday. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Fresno FC also brought back almost all its top players from a year ago, including Argentinian midfielder Juan Pablo Caffa, forward Jemal Johnson, Bullard High product Christian Chaney plus the entire back four led by Daly and No. 1 goalkeeper C.J. Cochran.

“On this team we have guys who have played for New York and FC Dallas (of MLS),” said midfielder Milton Blanco, the 34-year-old Fresno native who also works as the club’s youth soccer development manager.

“Guys that are from Brazil and Europe,” Blanco added. “With the returning players and the new additions I think we have improved. The first two results show that.”

Another factor that should help the Foxes, both on the pitch and at the ticket window, is a more balanced schedule.

Last season Fresno FC played five of its first seven matches at Chukchansi Park – in a span of 37 days – before going weeks and even a month without a home date. This season the home and road matches are more evenly distributed.

The Foxes drew an average of 4,871 in 2018, 11th out of 33 USL clubs. (The league grew to 36 teams in 2019.)

“When guys are gone for long periods of time, people lose interest,” Smith said. “And when there’s too many games at one time at home people say, ‘I’ve got something else to do.’“

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Fresno Football Club coach Adam Smith guides his team through drills at Fresno City College, Mar. 20, 2019, in preparation for the team’s season home opener at Chukchansi Park this Saturday. JOHN WALKER jwalker@fresnobee.com

Smith said the schedule, combined with a deeper roster, will help keep his players better rested and less impacted by injuries. Fresno FC no longer has an MLS affiliation, giving Smith and Yallop more roster flexibility.

“We had a stretch when we were gone for (US) Open Cup games on the road, league games on the road. We had Wednesday-Saturday-Wednesday for a long period and picked up injuries,” Smith said.

“When we had injuries I didn’t have enough strength and depth to fill those spots. The players we have now, I’m comfortable if I have to go to them and say, ‘Right. It’s your time.’“

Fresno FC home opener

Saturday: 7:30 p.m. at Chukchansi Park vs. Reno 1868 FC

Records: Foxes 1-0-1, Reno 1-0-1

TV: KFRE-59

Tickets: $19.50-$42.50

Info: fresnofc.com

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