It’s been a strange start of the season for the Fresno Fuego, to say the least.
Through its first 13 seasons in the Premier Development League, the Fresno club has been a consistent force in the semipro soccer league. But over the past two weeks, cracks began to show with the sudden resignation of first-year coach Sean Lanigan – two days after the Fuego’s first win of the league season, a result that was subsequently forfeited two days later because of an illegal substitution.
Before that, in the season opener, seasoned returners Christian Chaney and Elliott Hord were absent from the lineup because they hadn’t received clearance by the league since returning from short professional stints overseas (Hord to Sweden, Chaney to Armenia), even though they had been back for at least one month each.
In their next game, the Fuego appeared to find a rhythm, bolting to a 5-1 win over SF City FC.
Two days later, Lanigan announced his resignation due to family personal reasons and lead assistant Brian Zwaschka took over as interim through the end of the season. The announcement came in the middle of a busy week, with three matches in seven days.
Two days after Lanigan stepped down and moments before kicking off against the Las Vegas Mobsters in their next match, the Fuego announced they stood at minus-one point in the standings after forfeiting their victory against SF City due to an illegal substitution. Six substitutions are allowed per match by PDL rules, but the Fuego made one more than the allotment in the 80th minute. So, Fresno self-imposed a forfeit – a 3-0 loss – and deducted themselves one point as required by league rules as penalty.
Jeremy Schultz, in his eighth season as Fuego general manager, called it the most difficult year he’s had with the club, though he also noted the obstacles are all part of the business of running a team.
“At the end of the day, this is sports,” Schultz said. “These types of things happen, and we have to make adjustments as an organization.”
Lanigan, a native of Virginia, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Schultz said the string of events to open the season are not related. He called the paperwork issues involving Hord and Chaney an oversight by the front office: “These things happen in PDL – players come from all over the place – but we should have caught the situation and it didn’t happen until it was too late.”
The extra sub against SF City FC, however, could have been prevented – not only by a coaching staff that’s aware of the rules, but also by the fourth official. While it currently stands as a forfeit, the Fuego have put in an appeal with the PDL “because of the fact that Fresno Fuego is required to pay for a fourth official, and the responsibility of the fourth official is to make sure none of that happens,” Schultz said.
The Fuego (2-2-0) have won two in a row heading into their match Thursday against defending division champ Burlingame FC (2-2-1), though they still sit last in the five-team Central Pacific Division with five points.
Team captain Milton Blanco said it’s important for the players to lean on each other while maintaining their focus on the field, citing a lesson from Scott Alcorn, who stepped down after nine years as coach at the end of last season.
“One of the things that Scott always said as coach was ‘control the controllables,’ ” Blanco said. “What happens in the front is something we can’t control. All we can control is coming out here and working hard every day, preparing ourselves for game day and going out there and getting the results.”
Perhaps one positive from Lanigan’s short tenure with the Fuego was recognizing Chaney as an offensive threat in the penalty area. The 22-year-old Fresno native has been a wrecking ball since moving up top and was recently ranked the No. 3 prospect in the 47-team league. Chaney scored a hat trick in Fresno’s 6-2 win over the Las Vegas Mobsters last Thursday and scored once in a 2-1 win Saturday, also against the Mobsters.
Chaney played defense for two seasons for Fresno City College, earning All-America honors as a freshman. He switched to a central midfield role with the Fuego under Alcorn.
“It’s funny because for a couple of years I always joked around to my coaches: ‘Put me up top. Just put me up there, I’ll score goals. Just put me up there,’ ” Chaney said. “And I told Lanigan that once and, I guess, we had a shooting drill one day and he liked the way I was shooting and said ‘Chaney, you know what, I’m going to put you up top.’ ”
The Fuego are looking to continue their momentum and are anxious to get the franchise’s first win against Burlingame FC in five matches (0-3-1), including last month’s 1-0 loss in the PDL opener. With a victory, Fresno would jump over Burlingame and into second place in the division, tied with the BYU Cougars (who host the Fuego on June 9 and 11).
“It’s a six-point game for us and a chance to gain some ground,” Blanco said. “I think we’ve turned the corner, but if we beat (Burlingame) we put ourselves in a good position. And not that we’re thinking about it, but we’ll put everything that’s happened so far in the rear-view mirror.”
Soccer doubleheader Saturday
WPSL: FRESNO FREEZE VS. WEST COAST WILDCATZ
- Kickoff: 5 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
- Records: Freeze 3-0, Wildcatz 1-1-0
PDL: FRESNO FUEGO VS. BURLINGAME FC
- Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. at Chukchansi Park
- Records: Fuego 2-2-0, Dragons 2-2-1
- Webcast/TV: Youtube.com/CMACFresno (Xfinity 94/AT&T U-Verse 99)
- Of note: Burlingame, which opened the season 2-0, is riding a three-match winless streak: 2-1 loss at BYU, 2-2 tie at Las Vegas and 2-1 loss at Las Vegas. The Dragons are tied with Las Vegas for third in the division with seven points. Forward Jamael Cox leads the Dragons with two goals and one assist, while midfielder Corey Baird and defender Brian Nana-Sinkam are ranked Nos. 31 and 33 in the PDL’s Top 40 prospects.