The Fresno Fuego will get its first taste of live action under new coach Sean Lanigan at 6:30 p.m. Thursday when the popular Armenian club Ararat Yerevan FC visits Chukchansi Park for a preseason exhibition.
It’s the first of three preseason matches in a two-week span for the Fuego, one of its busiest – and earliest – starts ahead of the Premier Development League season, which begins in May.
Lanigan, a 49-year-old Virginia native, wasted no time in completing his first full week on the job as coach and assistant general manager. At Saturday’s training session, he was eager to share his knowledge with his players, periodically stopping their 11-on-11 scrimmage to drive home his concepts.
“I’m just very excited,” Lanigan said. “I’m getting to know the players now. Instead of numbers, I’m now getting to know their names, their habits and a little bit off the field, which really helps me decide who is going to be with us in the future.”
The Fuego has been practicing the last four weeks with assistant coaches Jose Delgadillo and Brian Zwaschka, who also is Fresno State’s women’s soccer coach.
A variety of young and old players are in the fray for the Fuego. Veterans Milton Blanco, Abraham Campos and Gaston Cignetti are on the prospective roster along with younger players Christian Chaney, Elliott Hord and Renato Bustamante.
Also at Saturday’s session was Villyan Bijev, the former Edison High/Clovis North High School and California Odyssey standout who signed with Liverpool FC at 18. Bijev, however, won’t remain with the Fuego, as he left to Portland on Sunday for a trial with the Timbers of Major League Soccer.
Still, the Fuego hopes to boast a strong forward attack under Lanigan.
“We’re working on building the attack,” Lanigan said. “We want to be a free-flowing team where we can build out of the back, but we want to free flow and create into the attacking third. The fans should be expecting a great style of play, all on the ground, fast-moving, and hopefully, we’ll be able to score some goals.”
The Fuego’s preseason is busy, but players such as Blanco know it can provide opportunities, especially for younger players. Blanco, 31, played one year in the MLS with Chivas USA and enjoyed stints in the North American Soccer League with FC Edmonton and the Atlanta Silverbacks. He played last season with the United Soccer League’s Orange County Blues FC.
“Anytime you can play somebody that’s in a higher league, you can measure yourself and learn and improve from them, and hopefully get an opportunity to one day play for those teams,” Blanco said. “Fuego does a great job setting up these games so you know we’re blessed, and hopefully, we go out there and do a good job for the fans.”
California tour – The Fresno exhibition is the first of a two-match visit to the Golden State for Ararat Yerevan FC, which will play an exhibition against the New York Cosmos on Feb. 20 at Citrus College in Glendora. (Of note, the Cosmos will play at Fresno on Feb. 24.)
Ararat Yerevan FC is one of the most popular clubs in the Armenian Premier League, having won two league titles and seven national cups. They are coached by Armenian national team manager Varuzhan Sukiasyan.
Tickets for Thursday’s match cost $11 to $25 and can be purchased at the Chukchansi Park Box Office or online at bit.ly/FuegoArarat. Prices increase $5 on match day.
FRESNO FUEGO VS. ARARAT YEREVAN FC (Armenia)
- Thursday: 6:30 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
- Tickets: $11-$25 for adults, $11 for children. Available for purchase at bit.ly/FuegoArarat or Chukchansi Park Box Office. Prices increase $5 on event day.
- Of note: Fresno Fuego plays three preseason matches in 14 days, also hosting New York Cosmos (NASL) on Feb. 24 and Sacramento Republic FC (USL) on March 3.