Fresno FC head coach Adam Smith called it a “must win” match.
Players Jemal Johnson and Jaime Chávez agreed.
After all, the Foxes had gone five games without a win, including a U.S. Open Cup match.
Mind you, four of those matches ended in draws in USL Championship play.
But Smith wasn’t happy with all those ties heading into last Friday night’s conference match against San Antonio.
“We can’t just keep drawing, we have to win so we can stay up with the pack,” Smith said before the match. “We really should have pulled away from the pack by now, but we haven’t and we only have ourselves to blame.”
The Foxes responded with an energetic 3-2 win over the visitors before a home crowd of 3,674 to improve to 6-7-2. That is good enough for 25 points and fifth place in the USL Championship Western Conference standings.
The 5-goal match opened with a scoreless opening half, despite Fresno Fuego shots that hit the crossbar, sailed just a bit wide or a goal that was negated by an off-side call.
“We hit the post after 2 minutes. That goes in the top corner and it’s a whole different game,” said Smith. “Our shots were a little bit far out. We needed to work inside.”
Johnson, a 23-year-old forward, added to his team-leading goal count with a 56th-minute blast from beyond the penalty box to open the scoring and later converted a penalty kick in the 63rd minute to give Fresno a 2-1 advantage.
“I was waiting for a major open to get open the door,” said Johnson, who has six goals. “We practice getting the ball off our feet, and just making sure we hit our target.”
San Antonio, which slipped to 16th (4-4-8, 16 points) in the 18-team USL Western Conference, stayed in the match with timely goals by Bradford Jamieson in the 78th minute and substitute Cristián Parano in the 70th minute.
That meant that Chávez’s goal in the 70th minute was crucial. The 31-year-old veteran who once played for the Chivas USA Under-17 team took a pass from Qudus Lawal, dribbled around goalkeeper Matt Cardone and easily slipped a right-footed shot into the goal to give the Foxes a 3-1 advantage.
“That’s part of soccer,” said Chávez about Fresno FC’s inability to close the door fully on San Antonio. “We take the lead, we were 3-1, but we conceded a goal. I think we were a little bit out of focus. I think we were a little too happy to have scored that third goal.”
Once he got past the fallen goalie, Chávez merely had to tap the ball into the net. The hard work, he said, came prior to that.
“It’s been tough for me. I haven’t been playing very much,” said Chávez. “I got the chance to come in and play.”
Johnson expressed frustration with the previous five matches where the Foxes failed to garner a victory.
“Five games without a result is difficult,” said Johnson, who was born in the U.S. but grew up in England. He was originally signed by Manchester United as a youth but instead played for other English clubs. “We still remain competitive in the league.”
Smith, Johnson and Chávez credited the fans for their support. (Fresno FC ranks 16th among the 36 USL teams in attendance with a 2019 average of 4,383).
“We like the fans. We like the noise,” said Chávez. “It gives us more momentum to score.”
Johnson said the fan base, which includes the Fresno Fire Squad, provides the Foxes with “a little bit more firepower.”
Smith, who walked off the field applauding the Friday night crowd, believes the win is what the Foxes will need to finish strong.
“We had to win tonight,” he said. “It was a big one for us getting back to our winning ways.”
Smith – whose 2018 squad finished 12th in the standings and missed the playoffs – now has a problem on his hands as his team gets ready to host El Paso (third place at 7-5-3) on Saturday (June 29).
For San Antonio, player injuries forced him to insert different players into the starting lineup.
“We got some great experience in that locker room,” he said. “I had to make some decisions on changing the lineup (today). Now, I have a big headache going to the next game.”
You only have to look at first-place Phoenix to understand why Smith is focusing wins and not happy with ties.
Phoenix Rising FC (9-5-2) is the only USL Western Conference team that has won more than half of the matches it has played. Fresno FC has only two losses, the same as Phoenix, but its seven ties are second in the conference to New México’s eight.