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When the Central Valley Fuego started in 2020, it not only revived the defunct sports brand and brought professional soccer back to Fresno — but also the idea of creating a downtown venue specifically for fans of the game.
“That’s the place you want to be if you’re a professional sports team — the breweries are there, the atmosphere is getting better and better,” says Juan Gerardo Ruelas Jr., managing partner of the USL League One soccer club.
And now nearly $300 million in government funding has been earmarked for the area over the next three years along with getting a major push from Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer that promises a tripling of downtown residents within the next decade.
“Obviously,” Ruelas says, “we want to be part of that.”
But three years on, the search for a suitable stadium space continues, as the team goes about the business of playing soccer. Last week, reports surfaced that the team is bringing on former U.S. men’s national team member Jermaine Jones as head coach.
A news conference announcing the hire is planned for Monday.
Soccer specific stadium in Fresno?
Of course, the idea for a soccer specific space in downtown Fresno has been germinating for years.
The original Fresno Fuego was an amateur-level team that started in 2003, playing at Fresno Pacific for a time, and at high school stadiums before ending up at Chukchansi Park.
And while the team did well in terms of attendance, the stadium since opening in 2002 has had a primary tenant in the Fresno Grizzlies baseball team. And creating a field there that meets professional soccer standards comes at a cost: more than $1 million for 15 home games as of 2022.
Even then, the stadium’s design puts even the closest seats too far from the on-field action for the enjoyment of most soccer fans.
The Fresno Foxes, a USL Championship expansion team that started in 2017, was allowed into the league only on the caveat that it would create a soccer-specific stadium (at a minimum of 5,000 seats). The team looked at two city-owned sites downtown (parking lots at the Selland Arena and across from Chukchansi Park), but they were deemed too small.
That failure to find a suitable home was one of the reasons the team folded in 2019 after just two seasons.
The franchise moved to Monterey, to the chagrin of its Fresno fanbase.
The new Fuego FC stepped in to fill the void of professional soccer in Fresno and continued where the old team left off. It has been working on plans for a downtown stadium since its inception.
One would have created a soccer complex, including a 5,000 seat pop-up stadium, outside Selland Arena and Valdez Hall. That deal became overly politicized, Ruelas says, and the team had to ultimately back away.
Its first seasons have been played at the soccer/lacrosse field east of Bulldog Stadium in a partnership with Fresno State.
A more recent plan would have put a stadium on several parcels of land near F street between Tulare and Mariposa streets, according to the mayor. In an interview with The Bee, Dyer said the team did a feasibility study on the location, only to learn the plan would need to extend into a section already claimed by the High Speed Rail Authority.
The authority is still working up its plans for the station, but it will include a pedestrian bridge that connects station facilities on both the H and G street sides of the railroad tracks, as well as plazas on the downtown and Chinatown sides of the station.
A first division soccer team
This is important because this Fuego FC is more than a development team and soccer isn’t like most professional sports, Ruelas says, where there is a major league and a minor league and “either you’re a big market or a little market, and that’s it.”
“Around the world it’s not that way,” he says.
A team’s status is based on merit, Ruelas says — whether it wins games. Proposed changes in the USL structure in upcoming seasons would move the league in that direction and make it easier for the Fuego to move up divisions, he says.
“It will not be crazy,” he says, “to think about Fuego being a first division soccer team.”
Soccer, plus entertainment
Any soccer stadium will likely start small — 3,500 seats at a minimum — but be designed with capacity to expand as the fanbase grows. That could be up to 15,000, Ruelas says, “as long as you plan for it.”
Fresno has regularly hosted Mexican League teams for exhibitions over the past three decades that draw nearly that many fans for each match.
But that all takes space and that’s been a major hurdle, even as Dyer has prioritized a soccer stadium as a needed piece of downtown’s cultural landscape, a venue for more than just sports.
“It’s about soccer, plus entertainment,” Dyer says.
That is in line with Fuego FC’s vision for the project, which Reulas crafted over the past year while visiting more than 40 soccer venues in the United States and also in Mexico, Portugal, Spain and France.
The best of them have options for fans before and after the games, he says. Ideally, Fresno’s stadium would have those elements as well. It would be located near housing and commercial spaces, bars and restaurants.
Of course, Ruelas is careful not to give anyone false hope.
Wherever the team ends up, it will be in a spot where it can best enact its vision for the team in the future.
“We don’t want to be an afterthought or shoved in a corner,” Ruelas says.
“We want to be at the helm.”