Soccer fans root on Fresno FC as they play at Chukchansi Stadium. Photo by Edward Smith
Written by Edward Smith
Professional soccer is looking to make a return to the Central Valley with the revival of a legacy brand.
Returning under the Fuego name, the Central Valley Fuego Futbol Club plans to play its first games in 2022 as a League I team in the United Soccer League.
What General Manager Chris Wilson found after hosting focus groups and polling the community of soccer fans was a desire to return to the Fuego name. The amateur team debuted in Fresno in 2003. Wilson worked for the Fresno Fuego for five years before transitioning to a vice president for the Fresno Foxes Football Club, which absorbed the Fuego in 2017.
Wilson will lead the team owned by local business owners Juan and Alicia Ruelas. The team will be “unapologetically bilingual,” embracing both Hispanic and American communities, said Wilson.
“It was really important that if soccer was going to come back to the region, that it was community-based, locally-owned and something that was born of the community and what the community wanted,” Wilson said.
Two different locations for a new stadium and training facility are being explored, one in Fresno and one in Madera County. Fresno’s Selland Arena may be one of the locations under consideration, with a vote by the Fresno City Council this week potentially paving the way.
Under United Soccer League guidelines, teams are required to have their own facility to play and train. The inability to secure a location was a significant contributing factor to why the Fresno FC folded.
The hope, says Wilson, would be to develop both sites.
The USL required in recent years that teams have — at the least — plans in place for a permanent site rather than sharing a location with another team, for instance a baseball stadium. The ownership group behind Fuego Futbol Club will be working throughout 2021 securing locations for the team.
The modular buildout would seat 5,000 with special sections for the four supporter groups in Fresno who have colorfully followed soccer in the area with drum lines, noisemakers, flags and more. They would also provide a training room, medical room and locker room for the teams.
The ownership group approached members of the Fresno City Council about buying Selland Arena to use as a soccer stadium, according to Fresno City Council President Miguel Arias.
On Thursday, the City Council will vote on whether to declare land at the Downtown Fresno site as surplus. The process, according to state law, says public entities have the right of first of refusal to any property declared surplus. Because of the state housing crisis, public lands must first be considered for housing.
“All we’re doing at this point by making it a surplus is making the land available,” said Arias.
The hope is also to establish a soccer academy as a transition for kids between youth soccer and professional soccer. The soccer academy would not have to be at the same site as the stadium.
An academy would provide a way for young players to develop their skills.
The Ruelas family ownership has been interested in starting a soccer academy for the past four years, says Wilson. Once Fresno FC announced they would not have a 2020 season, talks began to create the Fuego Futbol Club.
“They got introduced to professional soccer by their interactions with Fresno FC,” said Wilson of the owners. “That’s what really turned them onto the fact they could really anchor their academy with the professional side.”
Wilson said the Ruelas family wants to stay out of the spotlight, declining to give too many details about their business interests. Online searches show the couple affiliated with Ruelas Enterprises, Inc., with several businesses registered under that umbrella company.
Juan and Alicia Ruelas came to the United State and have been involved in Central Valley business for more than 25 years, says Wilson. Their own children have been successful in youth soccer. Wilson said they wanted to bring that to the community.
He hopes to get support from the community when it comes to land development required to build a stadium.
“This is not just one family’s goal to create pro soccer,” said Wilson. “It’s got to be an entire community’s passion.”