By Peter Maiden
“The beautiful game brings people together.” That’s a classic statement about soccer, coming Feb. 22, from Angel Moreno, media relations coordinator of the Fresno Football Club (FFC). Moreno was holding a meeting for the press in the Old Fresno Bee building downtown. He restated the message in contemporary PR speak: “Why do we exist? To provide a top-class inclusive and dynamic sporting experience in one of the nation’s most diverse regions.”
The FFC is Fresno’s first professional soccer team. The team’s players are paid a salary, the amount of which is held confidential by its management. It is in the 2nd Division United Soccer League (USL), where it is one of 33 teams nationwide. There are three other USL teams in California: Sacramento, Los Angeles and Orange County. What is the 1st Division? It is Major League Soccer (MLS), which includes the San Jose Earthquakes and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The FFC is also known as the Foxes, or Zorros in Spanish. They will play an eight-month season with 17 home games. The first game of the season is at home against the Las Vegas Lights, on March 17, starting at 7 p.m. All home games are held at Chukchansi Park, the stadium with the most caché in Fresno. Ten times the field will convert from soccer to baseball and back again, pulling up sod and laying it back down, but the team thinks that effort is worthwhile.
Starting the Foxes took inspiration and verve, which you can find throughout their makeup. Ray Beshoff, the primary owner of the Foxes, paid upward of $5 million for the franchise. Beshoff is a co-owner of Fresno’s Mercedes dealership. He was elected to the board of governors of the USL in this, his first year.
The Foxes recruited two forwards with experience on top teams in Europe: Jamal Johnson, who played for Manchester United Academy in England, and Juan Pablo Caffa, who played for La Liga, the premier Spanish league.
The team also has hometown representation. Four players come from the Fresno Fuego, a powerful amateur team that was purchased by the Foxes. Those are attacking midfielder Renato Bustamante, attacking midfielder Jose Cuevas, goalkeeper Agustin Rey and forward Christian Chaney.
The Foxes’ front-of-the-jersey sponsor, El Mexicano Foods, is footing the bill to develop local players.
Frank Yallop was named the general manager. He played 16 years with the English team Ipswitch Town, then played with the MLS team the Tampa Bay Rowdies. He went on to coach the MLS’s San Jose Earthquakes, where he was named coach of the year two years in his three-year tenure.
Professional soccer in the United States started after the United States hosted the World Cup in California in 1994. Two years later, the MLS was formed. Bringing foreign players to the United States helped to accelerate the development of the MLS. Yallop, speaking in his office at Chukchansi Park, said, “There were some great players who were coming over to the States for choice…they came over because they wanted to play in this fantastic league, in this fantastic country and live here and be part of the fabric.”
The USL began in 2011. The USL has a Western and an Eastern Conference, and winners in each conference will play each other for the USL Cup. Since its inception, the USL has morphed through various structures, as the league strived to become stable. For example, the number of teams will soon be capped at 36. Last year saw a doubling of the fan base of the USL. Here in Fresno, the Foxes have sold so far 1200 season tickets for their 8,400-seat venue— a good showing.
Most, but not all, USL teams are affiliated with one of the MLS’s first division teams. The Foxes are affiliated with the Vancouver Whitecaps. “I’ve known the Vancouver people for a long time, I lived up there when I was a kid,” Yallop said. “They were looking to affiliate, and they had a bunch of choices, but seeing what we were doing here in Fresno was a big item for them. It’s basically a place for them to place their players that they really like, the young ones, not quite good enough for MLS at the moment, but they’re good young players they don’t want to lose.”
Yallop is hoping to hit it off big time with the team’s growing number of fans in the first season—really from the first game. “When they have a great connection, the fans do not want to let the players down, and the players do not want to let the fans down.” He believes it’s the experience of the games that matters.
“I think the biggest thing for me is making sure that we’re entertaining to watch,” says Yallop. “I want the fans to come to this venue and go, ‘they might not have won this game, it might have been a tie,’ or whatever happens, that’s football, but they really had a great night, and enjoyed the team.”
Under the umbrella of the FFC are two amateur teams. One is the under-23 development team, which will feed players into pro soccer, and the other is the Fresno Ladies Football Club. The Ladies team is part of a sprawling network of women’s teams that include professional, semi-pro and amateur outfits. The Fresno Ladies will stay amateur, as they count on their college players, and the NCAA will not allow college players to be paid.
Yallop said about women’s professional soccer: “It’s a tough subject because there’s so much interest in it, [but] it just doesn’t seem to always work for some reason. It can’t quite get the crowds, the sponsorship. But the women’s game is huge and we’re trying to support it.” The Ladies’ season does not start until May. They’re working on getting a venue for their games, but they won’t play at Chukchansi.
The Foxes’ star forward, Caffa, is an appealing man of 33, tall and skinny. He’s got what they say in soccer is a “good pedigree.” He played in Spain for four years, Greece for two, Ecuador for two and last year played on the Tulsa USL team.
About the Foxes, Caffa said, “It’s different,” he said. “I’ve met so many people who have a strong desire to do this thing well.”
Peter Maiden is a staff photographer for the Community Alliance newspaper. He studied media at UC Berkeley. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.