The Central Valley has had soccer teams before – the Fresno Freeze, Fresno Fuego, among others. However, this team felt different, and you know what? So did the crowd.
More than 7,000 fans braved the cold weather Saturday night to witness the debut of Fresno’s first professional soccer team, Fresno Football Club. The excitement grew minute by minute as the kickoff approached.
The Foxes lost their Saturday night opener, but the positives can’t be understated. This team of Central Valley products and acquisitions from abroad can play. They have pace. They have talent. But, more importantly, they have the character that fits the mold of the Valley.
Although the Foxes fell to the Las Vegas Lights, 3-2, the crowd at Chukchansi Park showed that from the first minute to the last, they will fight.
“We’re a brand-new team – a startup franchise. It’s the first full professional game that means something that these guys have played together,” head coach Adam Smith said. “I think there are a lot of encouraging signs. Nobody turned us over. They didn’t come through us and I think it bodes well. We just have to tweak one or two pieces, and we’ll have more wins than losses.”
Jemal Johnson and former Fuego player Renato Bustamante etched their names in Fresno FC history with a goal each. After the Foxes found themselves down three goals in the second half, the pair combined to give the fans a glimpse of what this club could be with a flurry of chances towards the end of the match.
“[Bustamante] has been brilliant all preseason. He scored again,” Smith said. “The guy was in tears. Right now, that was his first full professional debut, so he came up and thanked me for it. I wish we could’ve gotten a tie for him or a win.”
The game opened with intensity on both ends. The crowd’s excitement energized the players and, in the second minute, the crowd witnessed the first goal in the Fresno FC era.
Las Vegas forward Matthew Thomas caught the Foxes’ back line napping and accurately slotted the ball past Foxes keeper Kyle Reynish.
“No, that didn’t change our game plan,” Bustamante said. “The game is 90 minutes, and that was 60 seconds. So they scored in the second minute, and we almost scored in the last minute of the game. That’s just the game of soccer. We stuck to our game plan, and it almost paid off in the end.”
Although the Foxes found themselves down a goal on their inaugural night, the team buckled down and put pressure on the visitors.
In the 18th minute, captain Juan Pablo Caffa whipped in an accurate cross, but couldn’t pick out his teammates waiting in the box.
Striker Pedro Ribeiro came inches away from giving the Foxes their first goal in franchise history in the 21st minute. Riberio darted down the Las Vegas final third before sending a powerful right-footed shot toward the goal. Las Vegas keeper Ricardo Ferrino was up to the task as he tracked the ball’s flight for the save.
Ferrino came to the rescue for the Lights once again after a deflected shot by midfielder Beto Navarro almost found its way in. Navarro danced past his defender before striking the ball inside the Las Vegas penalty area. The ball ricocheted off central defender Mickey Daley, allowing Ferrino to make the simple save, sending both teams into halftime. The Foxes trailed 1-0.
The second half opened on a much calmer tone.
Substitute Lights midfielder Alexander Mendoza entered the game at halftime. He latched onto a ball in the Foxes’ final third before sending a scorching shot past Reynish and into the top left corner of the net, past his outstretched hand.
Fresno FC continued to win corners. However, it could not capitalize on the balls in the box. The same couldn’t be said for the Lights. Captain Joel Huiqui gave the visitors a commanding three-goal advantage with a strong header after Carlos Alvarez whipped in an accurate corner kick.
With the game out of sight, or so some thought, the Foxes seemed to pick up steam. Johnson was getting space down the center of the pitch, and the Foxes were in sync.
A long ball from defender Bradley Kamdem Fewo found Johnson all alone behind the Las Vegas back line. Johnson controlled the ball delicately before turning toward goal and firing away, giving the Fresno FC franchise its first goal in United Soccer League (USL) history. The score read 3-1.
Although down 3-1, the Foxes’ momentum continued. In the 89th minute, Danny Barrera took the corner for Fresno FC and delivered a diamond ball into the box where forward Christian Chaney was waiting. The Bullard High School graduate knocked the ball down and Bustamante latched onto it, cutting the Foxes deficit to one goal.
“I saw the ball go up in the air, and I saw Christian get up there,” Bustamante said. “I know his game. I know he was going for the goal, so I just followed up the shot like you are taught to do as a forward.”
For Bustamante, playing for the Fuego in the past had given him some familiarity with some of the players and the pitch itself, but after playing for the two teams, he said there is little comparison.
“In all honesty, it’s incomparable,” Bustamante said. “[On] Fresno FC, there is a different vibe, a professional vibe. Fuego was unique to the town. It was all the local guys. Now we have players coming from all different levels, all different ages, and it’s a unique experience. I’m thankful to be here.”
The Las Vegas Lights closed out the final minute-plus extra time for the opening win in the USL season. Fresno FC sets another opportunity to bring home its first win next week on March 24, as it hosts The LA Galaxy II.