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Fresno celebrates its first pro soccer team

Fresno Football Club scored two second-half goals in the team’s home opener against Las Vegas Lights FC at Chukchansi Park on March 17.
Fresno Football Club scored two second-half goals in the team’s home opener against Las Vegas Lights FC at Chukchansi Park on March 17.

The numbers aligned almost perfectly for the March 17 debut of the only professional soccer team based between Los Ángeles and Sacramento.

▪ 7,750: The number of fans welcomed by Chukchansi Park.

▪ 108: The section inhabited by the highly energized Fire Squad Fresno, the fan club that began with the Fresno Fuego and now takes the Fresno Foxes Football Club under its belt.

▪ 3-2: The final score of the United Soccer League (USL) match, with the Foxes absorbing a 3-2 loss to the Las Vegas Lights FC.

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Fresno Football Club Fire Club Squad chants to drummers during the team’s home opener against Las Vegas Lights FC at Chukchansi Park on March 17. DANIEL CÁSAREZ

Fans arrived early and shouted in unison throughout the match to the rhythmic beat of drums pounded by the Fresno Fire Squad, especially after goals by forwards Jemal Johnson adn Renato Bustamante.

Héctor Ruiz and Cory Torres, both 9 year olds from Visalia, waved their Foxes banners before the kickoff. They cheered team owner Ray Beshoff, who sported a Foxes scarf while running on the field.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand had already made the first ceremonial kick to Beshoff, who ponied up $6 million for the USL club.

“We paid about $150 for everybody here, about five people, my family,” said Anthony Ruiz, Héctor’s father. “This is opening night. It’s Fresno! We’re affiliated. Let’s go get them!”

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Fresno Football Club Zach Ellis-Hayden, on left, rushes to the ball during the team’s home opener against Las Vegas Lights FC at Chukchansi Park on March 17. DANIEL CÁSAREZ

The atmosphere pleased Fresno City Council President Esmeralda Soria.

“We’re very excited. This is a historic day for Fresno to have our first professional soccer team,” said Soria. “We know that there’s a market here, and we’re going to bring more people to downtown. Downtown is revitalized, and we’re so excited about the team.”

The Foxes – who have also commandeered the use of the Spanish nickname Zorros – are a key to revitalizing downtown Fresno, said Soria.

Beshoff agrees.

“I know there’s a big Hispanic population here, and they’re real soccer fans,” he said. “Fresno, from what I’ve heard, is huge on soccer.

“My slogan is going to be ‘The world comes to Fresno’ for this home opener. Fresno is under-represented in pro sports.”

Jaime Ramírez, the former Fresno Fuego and current Fresno Pacific University soccer coach, Ramírez cheered from near the front row behind one of the goals. When Ramírez coached the Fuego, the talk was often about transforming the Premier Development League (PDL) squad to First Division.

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Fresno City Council president Esmeralda Soria and Fresno Mayor Lee Brand wave to Fresno Football Club supporters before the team’s home opener at Chukchansi Park on March 17. DANIEL CÁSAREZ

“We’ve been looking for this for a really, really long time. We’re thankful for Ray Beshoff and the groups involved in financing this franchise. For us to have this dream come to fruition by those who have the means to do it and to reward this community for their faithfulness,” said Ramirez.

Beshoff said the Fuego will continue as a Premier Development League team, and that it will become one of the farming outlets to the Foxes.    

“It’s not the same numbers, but the exciting atmosphere is really here, After our goal, it just got really crazy,” said Agustín Cázares, a Foxes midfielder who came to Fresno from the Sacramento Republic FC, a USL club.

“After being with the Fresno Fuego all those years, it’s great now to see these guys take it to the next level.”

Las Vegas Lights FC captain and defender Joel Huiqui has played at Chukchansi Park for México First Division club Monarcas Morelia.

“This is a good team. They will do good with all these fans in this division,” said Huiquí, while signing autographs for fans.

With a big smile, Amayah Moreno Moon walked with her mother Cristina Moreno through the gate to enjoy the soccer game.

The mother-daughter duo had matching shirts, carried a home made sign that read “We (heart) Angelito” and were prepared for the cold weather with some blankets.

Moreno, who lives in Fresno, said they were there to support her brother Ángel, a Fresno Football Club worker.

She said her daughter wanted to get season tickets for the games so they are now planning to attend all Fresno FC home games.

“She wanted to see tío,” said Moreno, who has been a soccer fan for a long time, especially of the Mexican club Chivas. “We are going to be here every game.”

Clovis residents Matt and Kaitlin Pentsa were super excited to attend a professional soccer game.

“We are here to support Fresno FC. Somos Zorros,” said Matt Pentsa as he showed his Vancouver Whitecaps FC shirt. “But we are representing the Vancouver Whitecaps because we got a Canadian resident here so we are excited to cheer on our affiliates.”

“This is long over due,” said Pentsa, a soccer fan for at least 15 years, of having the professional soccer team. “We are looking forward to a great season and many years ahead.”

“We are ready to support this team all the way through,” Pentsa said.

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Fresno Football Club player Danny Barrera, on right, rushes Las Vegas Lights FC player Samuel Ochoa at Chukchansi Park on March 17. DANIEL CÁSAREZ

At the beginning of the game a soccer ball landed on Julian Nevarez’s hands.

The 11-year-old boy and soccer player from Madera was at the game with his family – mom Leticia, dad Manuel and brothers Adrián, 13 and Christian, 18.

Manuel Nevarez said his family has season tickets for the Fresno FC games.

“We believe in supporting our local community and obviously any knew activities like this we got to support,” Nevarez said. “Soccer is a big deal in our area and this is something we were missing.”

He said the best way to ensure success of the team is to “participate financially. We believe it is a good investment.”

Leticia Nevarez said their two youngest children – Julián and Adrián – have been playing soccer for five years.

She said that even if there has been the possibility of rain during the game they wouldn’t have missed it and bundled up for the game with matching Fresno FC scarves.

James McHenry, of Coarsegold, also has season tickets for the soccer games.

“It’s pretty exciting. I’ve been waiting for it a long time. We got our tickets months ago, so we’ve been waiting a lot for it,” said Mchenry, who has been a soccer fan for a while hopes to make it to most of the games.

At the other side of the stadium on Section 108 the Fire Squad Fresno was all set for the game with its drums and capo leading them with their chants as well as smoke bombs of different colors.

Andrew Ueland, of Fresno, said the support section had approximately 300 to 400 people with season passes.

Ueland said the Fire Squad meet around 4 p.m. at Tioga-Sequoia Brewing Co. on Fulton Street for a pregame party and then marched to the stadium around 6:30 p.m.

“This year we got a police escort,” Ueland said.

“We are right behind the goal and every match we are going to be right behind the goal with our drums and singing all our chants,” Ueland said.