By Peter Maiden
The Fresno Football Club, known as the Foxes, or the Zorros in Spanish, is disbanded. It was a pro team in the second division United Soccer League, and it played at Chukchansi Park downtown. After making it to the playoffs this year, the players are going off on their different paths. It became economically impossible for the team to continue as such. They were losing $2 million a year and needed a new field.
My desire to become a photographer of soccer arose a few years ago. I had never photographed much sports, but I played varsity soccer in high school, and I loved watching the game. I had been spending a lot of time on a project in the Bay Area photographing Cuban and Puerto Rican musicians in concerts at clubs and auditoriums. My work was good (you can see it on www.maidenfoto.com), but moving to Fresno in 2017, I left the music scene behind. That created something of a void in my life.
The void was soon filled, as it happened that the Fresno Football Club started its first season here in 2018, and through Angel Moreno, the team’s PR man, I got a photo pass for all their games. I photographed 25 of the Foxes’ home games for the Community Alliance. The photos will eventually be up on the website of the Valley Public History Project at Fresno State University.
I was lucky to have good equipment: a camera that could shoot in the low light of night games and at 12 frames per second to get the action. I had a compact long telephoto lens and a monopod, which is like a tripod but with one leg, to hold the camera up through the 90-minute games. The team let me shoot from any angle I chose. I preferred to shoot from the side of the field at the line marking the outer limit of the penalty box.
It all came together like magic.
The 2018 season was great, but the 2019 season had a special kind of excitement. The team did extremely well. They hung in at around second or third place in the league. In picture-taking I did well, too. I felt that if I got good at soccer photography it could be art. Art should express emotion, I thought, and I began to come up with images that had feeling. Beyond trying to imitate other photographers, I found my personal style.
Then the worst began to happen. The Foxes ran into trouble. At the team office, everyone was mum until the season was over, but there was a lot of speculation.
Fresno FC was alternating with the Grizzlies, Fresno’s minor league baseball team. The Grizzles literally tore up the soccer turf up after a game and put in dirt for runners and a pitcher’s mound. This was awkward and expensive.
According to league rules, the Foxes had to have their own stadium after two years. The team looked at options for a stadium to hold 5,000 fans (around half the size of Chukchansi).
There was, and still is, a strong rumor that the team will go to Monterey. Owner Ray Beshoff has a home there. The talk was that it would move to the field of California State University–Monterey Bay. That would require building the stadium essentially from scratch.
The search for a new field was a saga of good ideas that weren’t good enough. Beshoff told Marek Warszawski of the Fresno Bee, “Every time we potentially had a solution to the problem, we hit a brick wall.” The City of Fresno couldn’t, or wouldn’t, help financially.
Soccer is certainly beneficial to the community. Everyone’s kids have some experience playing it. It’s an international game. In Mexico and South America, it’s the No. 1 sport—their baseball or football.
Professor Romeo Guzmán of Fresno State told me he was surprised that more Latinos didn’t come out for Foxes games. When teams from Mexico such as América or Cruz Azul came to play exhibition games at Chukchansi in the past, 10,000 turned out. Perhaps Fresno FC might have reached out more to the Mexican fan base.
Before one game I did a visual check of the communities in attendance. About half of the crowd seemed to be Latino, in accordance with the Latino population of Fresno. The rest included White people, some Black people and some Asians. The team had White, Black, Asian and Latino players.
Part of why the crowds didn’t come was probably nationalism, in all its complex forms. A writer in the Bee actually said soccer is not an American sport. But with the team representing and bringing together all the races, what could be more American?
Professor Guzmán said on social media that he shed a few tears after the final game. My reaction was delayed, but a few days later, when I got an e-mail from Angel Moreno and I realized the office and the store were already really and truly shut down, I cried, too.
There is plenty of blame to go around for the demise of Fresno FC, but you can’t blame the guys on the team or the fans.
Where will we go from here? Will professional soccer return to Fresno some day? It remains to be seen, but the sense I get from my contacts is that optimism is in short supply. Not to knock amateur soccer, which will be around, but it feels like the Beautiful Game has left town.
Peter Maiden is photo editor for the Community Alliance newspaper. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.